The Dark Side of Dark Leafy Greens
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In this issue
- The dark side of dark leafy greens
- At the supermarket: What’s trending in food shopping?
- Recipe: A healthy green smoothie
The dark side of dark leafy greens
Over recent years we have learned that a high intake of fruits and vegetables – higher than the 5-a-day we have previously been urged to eat – is critical for both physical and mental health. 
The main health benefits of plants are derived from their phytochemical content – naturally occurring compounds that give fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices their colour, aroma and flavour. These compounds are not essential for life, like vitamins and minerals, but do have amazing health benefits. A diet rich in phytochemicals plays a major role in the prevention and reduction of most chronic diseases, from heart disease, to cancer, dementia, diabetes and many others.
And the more we eat, the more disease-resistant we’ll be. Phytochemicals are important for health because they are anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and have anti-cancer properties. For optimal health, Health Canada recommends 7 to 10 servings/day for adults, and stresses red and orange vegetables like carrots, peppers, tomatoes and sweet potato. We are also urged to include at least one serving of dark green vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli every day.
How well are we doing?
Not very well, according to Statistics Canada. Despite continuing educational efforts, total fruit and vegetable intake sadly remains low, and the number of adults consuming the now outdated 5 servings a day is actually decreasing year over year. 
One way to bump up daily fruit and vegetable intake that busy people often use is to start the day with a smoothie. Using a blender (not a juicer) you can pack 2, 3 or more servings into one jumbo drink. However, depending on the fruits or vegetables you use, the resulting smoothie may be very high in sugar, so select lower sugar fruits such as apples, blueberries and citrus as well as non-starchy vegetables. Otherwise, you could end up creating a ‘sugar bomb in a blender’!
Check out the infographics of British diet doctor Dr David Unwin where he converts everyday foods, including fruits and vegetables into their equivalent in teaspoons of sugar [https://phcuk.org]. And if you are using a smoothie as a meal replacement it needs to contain protein – 30 grams is usually recommended. It also should include some fat, since phytochemicals need to be consumed with fat to be absorbed. 
Recently, a new client told me how her favourite way of making sure she gets her greens is by making a green smoothie for breakfast. Among a selection of fruits and vegetables, she always throws in a large handful of raw spinach. Spinach is a nutritious leafy green that is low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is a particularly good source of magnesium. Blending a handful of spinach or kale into a morning smoothie is a quick and easy way to get those daily greens.
But be warned. There are pitfalls to consuming some leafy greens in their raw state. Spinach, and to a lesser extent, kale contains oxalates which act as ‘anti-nutrients’. Antinutrients are natural compounds found in some plant-based foods that can bind to important minerals like magnesium, calcium and zinc, and block you absorbing them. Although not harmful in small amounts, consuming large amounts of anti-nutrients on a regular basis can have negative effects, depleting valuable minerals.
All the benefits without the drawbacks?
Lightly cooking spinach will reduce antinutrients and make the vitamins and minerals in the spinach more bioavailable. Wondering if freezing raw spinach will reduce the anti-nutrients? Its hard to be sure. Commercial spinach is often blanched before being frozen, and that should be sufficient to reduce the anti-nutrients. However, spinach can also be frozen without blanching, and food companies rarely state on the label how greens were treated before freezing.
So, if you like spinach in your morning smoothie (and it’s an excellent addition), buy a large container of baby spinach, wash the leaves thoroughly and then lightly steam. When cold, squeeze out handfuls of the cooked greens onto a baking tray and freeze. Once frozen, store the spinach pucks in a Ziplock bag, and add 1 or 2 to the blender. This way, you get all the many nutritional benefits of the spinach, without the drawbacks.
If eating raw spinach salads, do so in moderation, and mix spinach with other leafy greens – arugula and romaine lettuce, for example.
At the supermarket: What’s trending in food shopping?
Have the food items you regularly pile into your shopping cart changed recently? If so, you’re not alone. At the height of the pandemic grocery stores reported a big upsurge in the sale of foods that buyers associated with improved immune health and accelerated the trend toward “food as medicine”. In other words, lots of fresh produce, seafood, as well as more luxury items like premium meats and cheeses.
But with grocery prices skyrocketing way ahead of inflation, it’s not surprising that grocery shoppers are prioritizing affordability and convenience.  When we visit the supermarket these days, what we are looking for is value, value, value….
Can we save money and still eat well?
As we try to adjust to rising prices, there are ways we can reduce spending without compromising on food quality or allowing our diets to deteriorate. Here are a few tried and tested tips that can help stretch your grocery dollars and still eat well.
Plan meals before you go shopping: This way you avoid impulse buys and reduce food waste. Make a list of the items you need and stick to it. It’s all about being intentional about what you buy and making smart choices.
- Avoid all heavily processed foods: These are foods that have been altered in factories. Processed foods can be expensive and are always less healthy than fresh foods, as they are high in calories, unhealthy fats, sugars, and salt, and low in essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They typically contain multiple ingredients, including additives used to make them more palatable and therefore more appealing, especially to kids.
Examples are sugary drinks, packaged snacks, frozen meals, breakfast cereals, chicken nuggets, and other fast foods. These foods are designed to be convenient, easy to prepare, and have a long shelf life. But you are often paying as much for packaging as you are for any nutrition they contain, so try to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
- Shop seasonally and locally: Shopping for produce that is in season can be cheaper than buying out-of-season items. Check out your local farmers’ market for fresh and affordable locally grown fruits and vegetables. Then you are not paying for high transportation costs and expensive packaging.
- Explore the frozen food aisles. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually flash-frozen at the peak of their health and may retain more of their nutrition than fresh produce that has been hanging around in the supermarket or in our fridges for some time.
Frozen fish is a good source of protein and is often less expensive than fresh fish because it can be bought in bulk and stored for longer periods of time, reducing waste.
- Use cheaper cuts of poultry and meat: Swap out chicken breasts for chicken thighs. Although cheaper cuts ofmeat are tougher and require longer cooking but they can be just asdelicious as expensive cuts when cooked properly. Consider using a slowcooker or pressure cooker to tenderize tougher cuts.
- Cook at home: Cooking at home is generally cheaper than eating out. Try to prepare meals in advance so that you can avoid expensive takeout options.
Recipe: Green Smoothie
As outlined above, green smoothies are really worth considering if you’re looking for a quick and healthy start to the day. They can be delicious and energizing, setting us up for a good day’s work or school. Here’s a simple recipe for a single serving smoothie.
- 2 cups of spinach cooked, then frozen (see above)
- ½ banana
- ½ avocado or ½ cup of frozen avocado pieces
- 1 scoop of protein powder (vanilla)
- 1 cup whole milk, unsweetened almond milk or other non-dairy milk
- Stevia to taste
- Place the frozen spinach, and all other ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth
- Taste and, if necessary, sweeten with stevia to your liking.
- Serve and enjoy!
You can also customize this recipe by adding other ingredients such as frozen berries, nut butters, ground flax seed, or the juice and zest of a lime to make it even more nutritious and delicious.
For further information about Aileen Burford-Mason or to contact the practice visit her website at www.aileenburfordmason.ca
. Miller V et al. Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study investigators. Fruit, vegetable, and legume intake, and cardiovascular disease and deaths in 18 countries (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2017 Nov 4;390(10107):2037-2049
. Brown MJ, et al. Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings as measured with electrochemical detection. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Aug;80(2):396-403