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Kale: Nutritional Superstar

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on July 18th, 2013 Categories: Uncategorized

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I want to eat healthy foods that taste good and are quick and easy to make. I’d much rather spend my free time looking for vintage costume jewelry on eBay than sweating in the kitchen. But I also need to eat a lot to feel satisfied, so I eat a lot of vegetables.

Whenever possible, I try to buy organic vegetables, especially those that are on the Dirty Dozen list, because I want to get the most nutritious, healthy foods possible, without exposure to any extra chemicals. We know that vegetables are nutrient-dense – packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other good things such as:

  • antioxidants, including vitamins A, E, and C, which help strengthen the immune system and may help protect against certain types of cancers, including breast cancer
  • polyphenols, including flavonols in green tea, a type of antioxidant that may help protect against certain cancers and heart disease
  • carotenoids, including lycopene and beta carotene, plant compounds that can act as antioxidants and may help protect against certain cancers, heart disease, and macular degeneration (an eye disease)

While food shopping, I often wonder which veggies are the most nutritious. I do know that iceberg lettuce has great crunch but few nutrients and that spinach is a powerhouse. But which vegetables would boost the nutritional value of my meals the most?

It only takes a few minutes of research to figure out that kale is number 1, and I need to figure out how to eat more of it. The leafy green is the superstar of the produce section, chock full of the antioxidants vitamins A, C, and K, as well as a good source of copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus. Kale also is a rich source of lutein, a carotenoid, which also promotes good eye health.

Kale and other cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli) also contain several other phytochemicals (chemical compounds in plants) thought to reduce the risk of cancer, including sulforaphane, which has been linked to reducing the risk of certain breast and colon cancers, and isothiocyanates, which are linked to a lower risk of bladder cancer. Kale also contains a flavonoid, maempferol, which is thought to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

So I bought two bunches of organic Dino kale. This variety has a large smooth leaf, unlike some other varieties that have smaller leaves with ruffled edges. I washed it and stared at it. I realized I wasn’t exactly sure how to cook it. I knew I needed to remove the thick middle stems, but beyond that, I needed help.

My mother told me to sauté it with fresh garlic and then sprinkle it with lemon juice. Or, I could steam it or add it to a veggie stir fry. I tried both recipes and I’ll be honest — the superstar of the nutrition world wasn’t singing a love song to my taste buds. I had to choke it down. I experimented by adding kale to some chicken soup, and the longer cooking time and extra spices made a world of difference.

I also stumbled on a recipe for kale chips that is relatively easy and super delicious—and helped shift my affection for kale to true love. Something so nutritious just became extremely tasty and wonderfully crunchy. And making the chips took no more time than making a salad. I just removed the stems, washed the kale, dried it, tossed the dry leaves with avocado oil and then baked them for 12 minutes in a 350-degree oven. I added a sprinkle of sea salt and chili pepper once they were out of the oven. Yum!

One friend puts kale into veggie-fruit smoothies. The wrong ratio can taste like a swamp, but if you include fruit and carrots, you’ll fall in love. Really good!

Finally, my favorite: kale salad. My first attempt was unsuccessful. I tossed it with salad dressing and it was like eating a tree it was so tough. But then my smart buddies at Breastcancer.org told me the secret: you have to massage the salad dressing into the kale leaves for about 5 minutes (use a rubber glove or put your hand into a plastic bag and go for it). This softens the leaves and makes them more delicious and digestible. Baby kale works best, but you can even use full-size kale (just remove the thick stems). Add in chunks of pear or strawberries and crushed nuts, like I did in the photo above. Another bonus: kale salad keeps for a few days (unlike regular lettuce salads that wilt into mush).

Kale now has a favored spot in my crisper drawer. I am careful to buy organic kale because I’m eating a lot of it and it’s on the EWG Dirty Dozen list. Also, you don’t want to overdo it. Both raw kale and spinach naturally contain a high amount of oxalic acid, which can interfere with calcium absorption and trigger kidney stones and gout. It can also make you gassy. So it’s best to limit raw kale to one or two servings a week. Cooked kale doesn’t cause these issues, so you can eat as much of it as you like.

What about you? Is there a vegetable that you know is a great nutrition source that you had to force yourself to eat before you found a way to enjoy it?

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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