Leafy greens and other dark green and orange foods can help prevent common vitamin deficiencies

Healthy Living Tip: Are You Eating Enough Dark Green and Orange Vegetables?

A Healthy Diet Program for the 21st Century

Are you eating dark green vegetables every day? Most of us are striving to make healthy eating choices for ourselves and our families. We know we should try to give our kids a well-balanced diet. And we also know that most of us aren’t getting enough fresh vegetables and fruit. But how do we really put all that nutrition advice into practice?

If you grew up eating cold cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat and potatoes for supper, that’s probably still the way you tend to eat. And a diet like that doesn’t leave a lot of room for adding vegetables or fruit. Maybe one veg with supper and if you’re being super good, a salad at lunchtime and a piece of fresh fruit as a snack. But that’s far from the recommended 5-10 a day!

Learning to Eat a Different Way

In many ways, we’re all new to nutrition and healthy eating. Not because we all grew up eating junk food. But because the focus when we were kids was on getting our protein and drinking our milk. The vegetables and grains just went along for the ride. So now we’re having to learn a whole new way of eating healthy, where the vegetables are supposed to be the main event.

That means we have to change the way that dinner plate looks, we have to learn new recipes that place the emphasis on vegetables and whole grains. We even have to come up with all new ideas when it comes healthy snacks for kids’ lunchboxes and for after school. If that seems just a little overwhelming to you, join the club! One way to make the shift to a healthy diet program is to make the changes gradually, one thing at a time. Adding new foods to our diet is an important way to make healthy eating choices. And one of the first changes you can make is to try to get in more dark green vegetables, and orange vegetables and fruits.

Vitamin A & Nutrition

Canada’s Food Guide recommends that we eat one serving of dark green vegetables and one serving of orange vegetables or fruits each day. These foods are rich in vitamin A, on of the vitamins that many North Americans don’t consume enough of.

Depending on the age group, between 40% and 50% of Canadians are not meeting their daily need for vitamin A. Among Americans, more than half of teens and adults are not getting enough vitamin A. On the other hand, 13% of American children under age 9 are consuming too much vitamin A. Both of these conditions are reason for concern.

Different Types of Vitamin A

The vitamin A in our food comes in two types: preformed vitamin A and pro-vitamin A. The preformed vitamin A comes from animal sources, especially fish oils and liver. It is also present in milk and eggs. Vitamin A is added to some fortified foods such as granola or energy bars and breakfast cereals. Check the vitamin A content on the nutritional label of packaged foods. You can also look out for items such as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate in the ingredient list.

Vitamin A supplements are not recommended for most of us. A diet high in dairy products and fortified foods, such as we can see in younger children, can also be a problem. The safest way to get enough vitamin A to meet the needs of our bodies for growth, reproduction, and a healthy immune system is to eat plant-based foods rich in pro-vitamin A. That means dark green vegetables, and orange vegetables and fruits.

Vitamins in Dark Green Vegetables

We talked about orange and dark green vegetables supplying vitamin A. But these vegetables also provide a significant amount of other nutrients that are beneficial to our health. The main thing that dark green vegetables have in common is good vitamin A and K content, and a rich source of folate (a kind of B vitamin.) Many green vegetables are also rich in vitamin C, and minerals like calcium and iron. Leafy greens are also an important source of fibre.

  • Vitamin A: A powerful antioxidant that reduces the damage caused by free radicals in our bodies. Plays a role in skin, eye, and bone health, as well as in reproduction. Carotenoids, many of which are forms of pro-vitamin A, are anti-inflammatory and may help prevent heart disease and some cancers.

  • Vitamin C: I’ll bet you thought the only significant source of this vitamin was oranges! Vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant and plays a role in our immune function. It may help prevent cancer, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and cardiac disease. Vitamin C helps our bodies to absorb iron. It also plays a role in the healing of wounds. Among American adults, 43% don’t consume enough of this vitamin.

  • Vitamin K: This lesser known vitamin is involved in blood clotting and wound healing, as well as in building strong bones. A good vitamin K intake may help prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.

  • Folate: Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid, which I’m sure you already know is important during pregnancy. The word folate is derived from the Latin word folium, meaning a leaf. As expected, leafy greens are one of the best possible sources for folates in our diet. Folic acid in fortified foods and supplements can actually cause an overdose. It’s also not processed as efficiently by our bodies, in part because it isn’t adequately balanced by other nutrients that would be present when it occurs naturally.

    Folate is vitamin B9, and is responsible for making red blood cells. During pregnancy, an adequate intake of folates can help prevent certain birth defects. It is also necessary because of the increased blood volume that takes place during pregnancy, and to prevent anemia. Folate may help to treat or prevent certain types of cancer, heart disease and stroke, dementia, and depression.

    If you are a woman of childbearing age, it’s particularly important to eat enough naturally occurring folates as possible because the folate available in your body around the time of conception matters most. If you wait to supplement or improve your diet until after you know you’re pregnant, your baby isn’t going to get the folates until several weeks into your pregnancy. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that some foods are enriched with folic acid. Do follow advice from your doctor or midwife about supplementation and diet, but keep in mind that plant-based foods like leafy greens are the best naturally occurring sources of folates.

  • Calcium: You probably already know that calcium is necessary for strong bones and teeth, but did you know it also helps your muscles work? Calcium helps to regulate our hormones, body temperature, pH, and blood pressure. The mineral may help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension, certain cancers, and pre‑eclampsia. It may also play a role in preventing unhealthy weight gain. Of all the minerals in our bodies, calcium is the most abundant. It is also fairly common to be calcium deficient. In America, 49% of adults are not getting enough calcium. In girls aged 14-18, that number reaches the alarmingly high level of 81%.

  • Iron: You probably remember hearing that spinach contains lots of iron, and that eating your greens would make you strong like Popeye. Spinach actually does contain a significant amount of iron, as do other leafy greens. In fact, 100 g of spinach contains more iron than the same weight of steak. Iron is responsible for making red blood cells and transporting oxygen throughout our bodies. It is important for preventing anemia in pregnant and menstruating women, as well as individuals who suffer from certain chronic illnesses. Vegetarians and low-income families who may not be able to afford meat should be sure to include dark green leafy vegetables in their diet.

  • Fibre: We all know that dietary fibre helps keep us regular. But it also helps us to feel full after a meal, which can help with appetite and weight control. Fibre can help to regulate both cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and it contributes to healthy intestinal flora. An adequate fibre intake may help prevent colon cancer. Did you know that 97% of Americans are deficient in fibre? And we Canadians are no better: according to Dietitians of Canada, most Canadians only get about half the fibre we need each day. Only plant-based foods contain fibre: meat and other foods from animal sources do not contribute to our fibre intake. This is why it’s so important to eat your veggies!

Kale is loaded with vitamins A & C
Kale supplies very large amounts of vitamins A & C
(Image: Unsplash/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)

 

Leafy Greens

Many of us think of greens as just lettuce, spinach, collards, kale, and a few other vegetables that were either made into salads or cooked until they turned grey. But there is a whole world of other leafy, dark green vegetables out there, including some potherbs like parsley and cilantro that can provide many of the same nutrients as dark green vegetables if eaten in sufficient amounts. Don’t just eat the same greens every day: there are plenty of options so you can mix things up. If you haven’t really explored all the different leafy greens that are available to fulfill your vitamin A requirement, check out this list.

  • Arugula (rocket or roquette)

  • Asian greens (includes tatsoi, celtuce, Chinese broccoli, leaf celery, chrysanthemum greens, Chinese spinach, Malabar spinach, mizuna, and others)

  • Beet greens

  • Broccoli rabe (rapini)

  • Chicory (curled endive)

  • Collards

  • Dandelion greens

  • Escarole

  • Kale

  • Kohlrabi greens

  • Lettuce (Romaine, butterhead, red and green leaf lettuce but NOT iceberg lettuce)

  • Mesclun

  • Mustard greens

  • Pea shoots

  • Spinach

  • Swiss chard

  • Turnip greens

  • Watercress

How much to eat? The leafy green vegetable portion size is 1 cup if the greens are eaten raw and 1/2 cup if served cooked. This is because they shrink down a lot during cooking. Don’t be afraid to add a little oil or butter to your greens. Vitamins A and K are both fat-soluble. Our bodies can use the vitamins better if we eat them with just a tiny touch of fat.

One serving of asparagus is 6 spears, or 1/2 cup
One serving of asparagus is 6 spears, or 1/2 cup
(Image: Pexels/CC0 1.0)

 

Brassicas & Other Dark Green Vegetables

In addition to leafy green vegetables, other dark green vegetables are also high in nutrients. “Cole crops” refer to brassicas, members of the cabbage family that are also sometimes called cruciferous vegetables. Some of the cole crops are mentioned above, as they are green leafy vegetables such as kale or watercress.

You will notice that some of the brassicas have been left off the lists. I tried to follow Canada’s Food Guide for the most part, and respected their convention for placing vegetables like cauliflower and white cabbage outside the dark green vegetables because they are lower than other brassicas in vitamin A content. Where the Food Guide didn’t list a vegetable, I looked up the nutritional content and listed those dark green vegetables that had significant quantities of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate and minerals like iron or calcium.

These vegetables count towards your daily intake of dark green vegetables:

  • Asparagus

  • Beans (green snap or yardlong beans but NOT yellow snap beans, Lima or fava beans, etc.)

  • Belgian endive

  • Bok choy (sometimes called Chinese cabbage or pak choi)

  • Broccoli

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Cabbage (red and savoy type but not white cabbage)

  • Edamame (soy beans)

  • Fennel

  • Fiddleheads

  • Green Pepper (according to Canada’s Food Guide – but according to the USDA they are fairly low in vitamins A & K; red peppers may be a richer source of vitamin A)

  • Leek

  • Okra

  • Peas (shelled garden peas or peas with edible pods)

  • Seaweed

  • Zucchini (with skin on – baby zucchini has more vitamin A than full-sized)

A single carrot supplies more than twice your daily vitamin A - and carrot tops count as a dark green vegetable too!
One medium carrot supplies 203% of your vitamin A for one day
(Image: KRiemer/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)

 

Carotenoids & Orange Foods

Carotenoids are orange, yellow, and red pigments that occur naturally in plants. They are responsible for the colour of many fruits and vegetables, and are one of the chief reasons we should eat orange fruits and vegetables daily. The pro-vitamin A carotenoids are converted into vitamin A by our bodies.

Carotenoids include beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin, all of which are pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Other carotenoids you may have heard about are lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. These carotenoids are not converted into vitamin A in the body, therefore their content is not a main consideration when deciding whether to include a fruit of vegetable on our list of dark green and orange foods to eat daily. (They are still very healthy and necessary in our diets. They just don’t boost our vitamin A intake.)

Check below for some orange vegetables and fruits that are good sources of carotenoids that will convert to vitamin A when you eat them.

Orange Vegetables & Fruits

  • Apricot

  • Cantaloupe

  • Carrot

  • Mango

  • Nectarine

  • Papaya

  • Peach

  • Pumpkin

  • Squash (Orange-fleshed winter varieties such as acorn, Hubbard, and most especially butternut but NOT spaghetti squash or most summer squash)

  • Sweet potato (sometimes called yam)

OK, that’s an awful lot of information to digest. So let’s do a quick roundup to make it less overwhelming:

  1. You should be eating one serving of dark green vegetables and one serving of orange vegetables or fruit each day;

  2. Adding at least one of the above to your diet each day is a step towards eating a healthier and more balanced diet;

  3. These green and orange foods are important because they supply vitamins C, K and the B vitamin known as folate, but most especially vitamin A;

  4. Green and orange foods listed above also supply dietary fibre and minerals like calcium and iron;

  5. Eating these foods on a regular basis can help prevent nutritional deficiencies that are common in the North American diet.

 

 

Did you know about eating a serving of green and orange foods each day? How good are you at following through on that? I’d love to hear about your favourite leafy greens, other dark green veggies, and orange fruits and veg. Let me know how you like to eat them in the comments below!

 

Want to pin this post for later? Feel free to use the graphic below:

Foods rich in vitamin A | Add orange and dark green vegetables to your diet each day to ensure you’re getting enough pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Making one healthy addition to your daily diet is taking one more step towards a well balanced diet. | 24 Carrot Diet
Adding just one dark green or orange vegetable to your diet each day is a step towards eating a healthier diet
PLEASE PIN THIS ARTICLE – remember sharing is caring!
Graphic made in Canva using a public domain image by Pixabay user Nietjuh

 

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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert or health professional. I am just sharing information I have learned so you can further your own exploration of healthy foods. The information is as complete and accurate as possible at the time of publication, but some sources vary in their recommendations and the science of nutrition is always changing. Nothing presented here should replace the advice of a licensed dietitian, certified herbalist, or medical doctor. You and only you are responsible for obtaining professional diagnostics and advice, and only you can make your own healthy eating choices.

37 thoughts on “Healthy Living Tip: Are You Eating Enough Dark Green and Orange Vegetables?”

    1. The best way is to start by choosing one dark green vegetable (or one orange fruit or vegetable) to add to your menu each day. This will help ensure you're getting the most important vitamins and minerals. Once you've gotten into that habit, just add in one more serving of vegetables a day. You might want to do that by adding a bowl of soup before meals. Or you could have some raw veggies with hummus for a midday snack. Another trick is to add some sliced veggies or greens to a sandwich, or chopped veggies to a casserole or spaghetti sauce.
  1. These fresh veggies are so important for a healthy diet! Strangely enough, one of my biggest pregnancy cravings has been raw fruits and vegetables...I've eaten more carrots in the past few months than normal, that's for sure! Spinach and bok choy are probably my favorites of the leafy greens. Rachel G recently posted...Baby Shower for Our Boy!My Profile
  2. I am shoveling so many vegetables into my face this month since I'm doing the Whole30, but before that, I rarely ate any veggies. And as a vegetarian I legit don't even know what I was eating haha. I'm hoping I can stick with this veg-full life after I finish the Whole30!
    1. Whatever your other dietary choices, vegetables are so important! Glad you found a way to eat them regularly. You'll have to pop back in after you complete your Whole 30, and let me know how it went :)
  3. I love vegetables a lot because i believe it keeps me healthy and in good shape. I can't do without it in an interval of two days. Thanks for this healthy tips and information. Great job.
    1. I love my vegetables too! I was posting in one of my gardening groups about how I've been SERIOUSLY craving kale for the last month, and someone there was shocked. She only eats kale because she wants to stay healthy and couldn't believe anyone would actually love it, LOL! We're eating more orange than green right night, just because of what's in season locally and what's affordable at the grocery store. When the local greens are sold out for the year, we have to resort to grocery store imports, frozen or canned veggies, and making up for the greens with as much squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes as we can get...
        1. Will do! I always check out my visitors' blogs if they leave their links. I subscribe to many, and enjoy checking out fellow bloggers' recipes and healthy lifestyle posts :)
          1. I saw that! Not to worry: I also have an interest in living a frugal life. So I am happy to read your posts about living below our means, saving money, and so on :)
  4. I love vegetables but definitely do not eat the recommended daily amount. Very informative article. Thank you for sharing all this great information!
    1. Very few of us do, I think! Many of us are doing better, in that we're trying a lot of new vegetables that we were not raised eating. But we still have a ways to go when it comes to shifting the focus away from the meat, dairy, and starchy foods in favour of more fresh produce and whole grains.
  5. Love this article! Thank you! What a wealth of information here. I just wrote and article about adding more fiber to my family's gluten free diet and this fits right! My son has fructose malabsorption so eating fruits and veggies is kind of challenging. But, I am determined to work more varieties in that work for all of us.
    1. My hat is off to you, Karina! I can't imagine all the work that goes into adapting your diet to your son's various needs. I really enjoyed your post about the low fibre content of the gluten-free diet. It's something that I think a lot of us probably don't consider when we hear someone is GF. I'm glad that you're finding ways to get that fibre into your son's diet and to give him a variety of foods that are safe for him to eat :)
  6. Great article. I’ve been trying to eat a little healthier so I really needed to read this. I agree with the part about eating what you were raised with, for me that’s pasta for dinner and batteries for breakfast which isn’t that healthy at all.
    1. Pasta is a comfort food for a lot of people, so you aren't alone in needing to balance it with foods that are lower in carbs :)
    1. These vegetables in particular are very important for vegetarians. They help ensure you're not missing nutrients that an omnivore would generally consume from animal-based foods. I'm so glad you enjoyed and found the information helpful!
  7. What an extensive list! I too had the same meals as you growing up but then I got away from vegetables for some reason. Now in my later years I find myself cooking more veggies than anything! My hubby loves salad, even it it's just a bowl of lettuce with oil and vinegar. I'm a big fan of stir fry cooked with olive oil.
  8. Hi Kyla, I pinned one of your pictures-- beautiful. As far as greens, I go in spurts. I eat salad when I'm dieting or when it's hot or when I'm in a restaurant usually. Thanks for the motivation. Janice
    1. I used to be that way too. Now I find that I enjoy eating my greens so much that I just really want them every day. I can do that for several months of the year while all the local farmers have them available. We eat kale, chard, beet greens, and turnip greens pretty much every week throughout the growing season, with a few Asian greens and others being more occasional. But come the fall, there's nothing fresh for months. So right now we're making do with the few other green vegetables that are available here, and really enjoying a lot of the orange foods like squash and carrots a lot more often :)
  9. I love green veggies, probably don't get as much as I should, but I've increased them exponentially, so that's a good thing. Love your healthy eating tips.
    1. I'm finding it harder to get enough greens in the winter. And my body is really craving them! I think I will have to start eating things like purple cabbage and Asian greens throughout the winter months when I can't get fresh kale, chard, and such. I do try to get fresh broccoli in the winter, but it's often pretty sad looking. And I sometimes buy frozen Brussels sprouts. But they are soooo expensive! I can't say I'm a fan of frozen broccoli, so I don't do that very often. We do eat our spinach year round, though. Just not often enough in the winter months.
  10. I really need to eat more vegetables. I eat plenty of fruit, but about the only vegetables I eat regularly are sweet potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, sweet red peppers, marinated artichokes, avocados (another fruit) and white beans. This is mostly because I don't cook much anymore and grab what's easy.
    1. That's still a decent selection of the vitamin A rich veggies, Barb. Compared to most folks, you're probably doing quite well. Especially if you're getting dairy products and eggs too.
  11. I am sure I do get enough green and orange in my diet since vegetables are the main dishes each and every night. Nice article.
      1. I always enjoyed both meat and veggies. But we grew up with that "meat and potatoes" mentality that put the veggies last. So it's only in recent years that I've started to eat more of the really healthy vegetables and to de-emphasize the other foods. Thanks so much for popping by and commenting, Brenda! I'm happy to be seeing more of you these days :)
    1. I've seen evidence of all the veggies you're growing and the meals you cook, in your blog posts. You set a really great example for the rest of us, Andria :)

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