By now, you’ve probably seen the TedX video from Dr. Terry Wahls, a former Tae Kwon Do champ and current MD diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (the kind that degenerates your brain and has you relying on a wheelchair to get around) who describes her transformative experience with a dairy-free Paleo diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meat and organs, and seaweed. Relegated to and totally dependent on a wheelchair in 2007, by 2008 Wahls had adopted the diet and was commuting to work on a bicycle and now incorporates this kind of intensive directed nutrition into her primary care and brain injury clinics. If you haven’t, go ahead and take twenty minutes out of your day to go watch it. It’s a real eye-opener (but not all that surprising to longtime readers). Think of it as a grass-fed, wild-caught success story.
I already linked to this video a couple months back, so why bring it up again, you might ask? Back when I watched it for the first time, something caught my ear: the focus on vegetation. Wahls speaks of eating nine cups of plants every day, with three coming as leafy greens, three as sulfur-rich vegetables, and three as brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She explains why each category is so important, not just for someone looking to reverse MS, but for anyone who wants to be healthier in general. She got me excited all over again about incorporating more vegetation into my diet. It’s not like it’s lacking or anything, either. I had just taken it for granted – some spinach here, a Big Ass Salad there, some roasted Brussels sprouts for dinner – and instead focused on the animal food. If you remember, the base of the old Primal Blueprint food pyramid was vegetation, and I still maintain that the optimal Primal plate is overflowing with mineral-and-antioxidant-rich plant matter. I think the (understandable) tendency of some to knee-jerkily rebel against anything resembling Conventional Wisdom means that leafy greens and other vegetables fall to the wayside. That’s a mistake, I think, and it’s important to understand that eating both loads of leafy green things and things that crawled, flew, or swam is not mutually exclusive. You can do both. You should eat both. And I’m going to tell you why.
Before I start, when we talk about greens, we mean leaves. So things like:
- Beet greens
- Sweet potato leaves
- Baby greens
I haven’t covered all the regional leaves utilized in various cuisines across the world. These are the basics that most people reading this will be able to find at their grocer, farmers’ market, farm stand, and/or frozen section. Other vegetables like broccoli or certain types of cauliflower are green, but aren’t “greens.” A discussion on those guys will come next week.
Terry Wahls likes greens for the minerals and vitamin content. With that, I agree. Greens represent a convenient, essentially non-caloric, nutrient-dense source of otherwise hard to obtain minerals, like magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese. Heh, so what have those minerals done for me lately, you might be wondering. Well…
Of all the minerals we Primal folks talk up, magnesium may very well be the most widely supplemented. It’s certainly one of the most important; over 300 physiological processes in the human body require magnesium to function optimally, foremost among them the production of ATP for energy. Your mitochondria use magnesium to produce ATP, the body’s energy currency. So if it’s so important, why must we all supplement? How did people get enough magnesium before Natural Calm? There are a few factors, including the disappearance of magnesium from our drinking water and top soil, but the fact remains that most of us aren’t even trying to get enough magnesium through our food. That should change. Eating greens like spinach and chard will go a long way toward adding dietary magnesium.
Of all the minerals we discuss, calcium may be the least-supplemented or most-ignored. That’s a mistake. While I’ve certainly called into question the wisdom of supplementing with handfuls of calcium pills without considering the roles of vitamins D and K2 in bone mineralization, we still need calcium. We still need that raw building block (and crucial trigger for neurotransmitter release). And if you’re not eating dairy, leafy greens are probably your best source.
Potassium is another nutrient a lot of people miss out on, especially if they’re overcooking their meat (the juices contain the potassium), avoiding tubers and fruits (both are high in potassium), and shying away from avocados because of the linoleic acid (don’t stress out over a little whole-food omega-6, folks, especially when it comes in such a creamy, green package). I just got done writing about the importance of the potassium:sodium ratio in regulating blood pressure, so if you’re not eating the aforementioned potassium-rich items (and even if you are), be sure to eat your greens.
Your mitochondria use manganese to manufacture manganese superoxide dismutase, a potent mitochondrial antioxidant. With inadequate superoxide dismutase, you increase your chances of ischemic brain injury (think stroke) or developing a neuropathology. Simply put, manganese keeps your mitochondria running cleanly.
Terry Wahls also likes greens for their vitamin content, specifically B-vitamins like folate. I tend to agree, and I’ll highlight a couple key nutrients that greens provide.
Though it’s widely touted as particularly crucial for expectant mothers and the development of the babies they bear, folate is also important for anyone’s general health. Inadequate dietary folate intake can lead to elevated homocysteine levels (which can impair endothelial function and is a risk factor for heart disease). Modern processed grain-based foods are usually fortified with folic acid, but you’re not eating that stuff. And unless you’re also eating plenty of liver, if you shun greens you are most likely lacking this vital nutrient.
Betaine is another important but oft-ignored nutrient that many people, even Primal eaters, lack. Like folate, it regulates proper homocysteine levels. Betaine also helps maintain liver health. Spinach is perhaps the greatest vegetable source of betaine (other than maybe wheat germ, but who wants that?). Spinach tastes pretty darn great steamed and tossed with olive oil, sauteed in bacon fat, or raw on a salad, so go ahead and eat some.
Besides the micronutrient content, there are other benefits of eating leafy things, especially in concert with the other foods on your plate. For those interested in eating less or losing weight, eating a salad with your meal spontaneously reduces overall caloric intake. I dunno about you, but I think any weight loss “diet” should include spontaneous caloric reduction. Although we know that caloric intake factors into weight loss or gain, we also know that many, if not most, people have difficulty consciously reducing calories. It simply doesn’t work very well, so the key is to spontaneously reduce calories by eating satisfying foods that don’t derange our satiety hormones. That’s what going Primal is all about, and research shows that eating salad (perhaps a Big Ass Salad?) can help in that regard.
Although I’m coming up dry right now, I remember reading research that showed eating leafy greens, like spinach or kale or a green salad, alongside your grilled steak reduced the absorption of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from the meal. HCAs are carcinogenic and form with high-heat cooking, especially on meat, and absorbing fewer of them is a good thing. I’d be much obliged if anyone could pull up the research. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.
But the real beauty of leafy greens? They are prepackaged whole food “supplements” with safe and well-balanced vitamin and mineral levels. You eat a few cups of spinach, a romaine lettuce salad, maybe some kale chips and you’ll be getting a nice healthy range of nutrients. Your overall caloric intake won’t really be impacted and you’ll be safe. No, you won’t have a nutritional profile from the manufacturer telling you exactly how many milligrams of magnesium your bowl of sauteed kale contained, or the amount of betaine in that head of spinach you chopped up and turned into a salad. The nutrient range will vary from head to head and leaf to leaf. And that’s okay. Heck, that might even be optimal. I can imagine an organism that evolved eating a varied diet with lots of ups and downs and big blocks of this mineral in one meal and another big block of that vitamin in the next. I can imagine an organism that evolved eating food, rather than prepackaged, preordained, pre-meted out collections of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Can you?
That’s why it’s food, without a label: it doesn’t need to be exact. So if you ever find yourself paused in front of the grocery store display, agonizing over the respective folate content of two particularly large heads of romaine lettuce and frozen – totally unable to act – hang it up. Start back at square one. Realize that this is food that’s meant to be eaten, not over-analyzed.
If it’s green, leafy, crisp, and free of chemicals, it’s safe, healthy, and good to eat. Adding such a food to your diet – in sauteed, steamed, boiled, dehydrated, baked, or raw form – will most likely help, so eat it! I’m not saying you have to eat three heaping platefuls of vegetation, like Terry Wahls did. I’m suggesting that adding leafy greens to a diet lacking in them will almost certainly improve the nutritional content of that diet.