Is Kale Good for You?
Kale is often hailed as a superfood, but a decade ago, it wasn’t on Americans’ radar except for the most health-conscious. Is kale really all it’s cracked up to be or just a food fad that’s overstayed its welcome?
What Is Kale?
Kale is a dark, leafy green, and a centuries-old dietary staple of human consumption–no fad here.
The kale plant was initially cultivated from select cabbages, so it’s a type of cruciferous vegetable along with broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, collard greens, and a few other cabbagey relatives.
Types of Kale
Kale comes in quite a few varieties. The two most popular types of kale are curly and Lacinato.
- Curly Kale: also known as Scots kale, and synonymous with kale greens in general. It has curly, ruffled leaves that range from light green to dark purple, and an earthy, almost bitter taste when raw. When cooked, a certain sweetness can emerge.
- Lacinato Kale: a vegetable of many names, Lacinato also goes by dinosaur kale, Tuscan or Italian kale, or Tuscan cabbage. It has large, flatter leaves that range from blue-green to blackish, that crisp well and overall have a sweeter, richer taste.
- Chinese Kale: sometimes also called Chinese broccoli, but more accurately referred to by its Cantonese name, gai (or kai) lan. With a thick stem and glossy green color, Chinese kale has a taste stronger than, but reminiscent of the broccoli we all know.
- Red Russian Kale: Red Russian kale is very leafy with frilly edges, a mild green color, and light purplish veins. It is somewhat decorative but totally edible and tender, so it makes a good addition to salads, sandwiches, or the like. It has a nutty flavor, sweet but earthy.
Kale Nutrition Facts
No matter which types of kale you bring into the kitchen, it will be serving platefuls of nutrition with any dish. It doesn’t have to be eaten raw to get full kale nutrients, either. In some cases, cooking actually makes the nutrients more accessible.
Kale vs. Spinach
Kale and spinach will often be found sold together in leafy salad mixes, full of dark green vegetable goodness. For nutrition, the two are best eaten together and offer similar, conjunctive health benefits.
However, the biggest drawback of spinach is that it is high in oxalate, which prevents the absorption of calcium in the body and can lead to the formation of common kidney stones. If you’re at an increased risk of kidney stones, choose kale over spinach.
Both kale and spinach have very high amounts of the blood-clotting vitamin K, so people on blood thinners should limit their intake of either vegetable as well.
What Are the Benefits of Kale?
Vitamins and Minerals
Kale is a densely nutrient-rich vegetable, and even the vitamins and minerals it contains in only small amounts help us reach our daily recommended values.
For example, the FDA states we only need 2mg each of copper and manganese, 1.7mg of B vitamin riboflavin, and 1.5mg of B vitamin thiamin. Though these values are quite small, including kale as part of a balanced diet is a helpful step in meeting the dietary guidelines.
Vitamin C is important for our bodies’ collagen production and iron absorption.
The recommended serving of vitamin C is 60mg a day. One cup of kale offers over 100% of this value and is a top pick for vitamin C consumption, as a single serving of kale will provide much more vitamin C than one serving of spinach or oranges.
Kale has mild anti-inflammatory properties and is rich in antioxidants, which lessen the effects of aging. Studies have shown some specific kinds of antioxidants — alpha-lipoic acid, found in kale — can play a role in lowering glucose levels, as well.
Vitamin K lets us produce proteins that allow our blood to clot normally and support bone health and metabolism. It interacts negatively with anticoagulant medication — or blood thinners — for obvious reasons.
We don’t need much vitamin K on a daily basis, only 80 micrograms, because the body already creates most of it. A single serving of kale has almost 700% of our recommended daily value. As there’s no apparent upper limit for vitamin K, the average person need not worry about overconsumption through the foods they eat.
Beta-carotene is a pigment found in plants like vegetables, including kale, which contains the pigment in high amounts.
Beta-carotene is easily converted into vitamin A by our bodies, and vitamin A is important for vision, immune support, and general wellness. It also supports healthy skin and hair. One cup of kale can provide the equivalent of 200% of our daily value.
Other Health Benefits of Kale
Due to its mixture of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, kale promotes lower levels of bad cholesterol and higher levels of good cholesterol, better heart health and a lower risk of heart disease, and improves blood pressure.
Kale also provides iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, either cooked or eaten raw. It has high water content and is a source of fiber and protein. Kale protein is an excellent choice from a plant-based source, and kale fiber is most plentiful before cooking.
It is rather low in calories, with just 30 per serving, and kale calories are by no means empty. But the carbs in kale are also a low 6g per serving. This makes it filling yet not fattening.
How to Eat Kale
Kale greens are fairly versatile and can be eaten in a number of ways.
- Whereas you wouldn’t typically take a bite out of an uncooked broccoli floret (you can, and it’s good for you, but no one wants to), raw kale is often used in salads, wraps, or as a garnish. You won’t really get the benefits of kale from just a leaf or two of garnish, but it is still perfectly fine to munch on.
The biggest drawback of raw kale is that it can be slightly difficult to eat — leafy or not, it’s a hardy vegetable. Baby kale is a more tender, easy to eat alternative for raw uses.
- If you’re going to dice up your kale a bit, a single cup can be incorporated into many recipes. Blend it into a smoothie or add it into homemade ground beef patties. Stir it into a pot of pasta sauce or soup, or include it in a creamy cheese blend.
- And like any other vegetable, you can simply cook up some kale greens, season, and serve them. Steam, saute, boil, or bake some into kale chips. Kale takes well to olive oil and a little salt, or stronger flavors like garlic, onion, cumin, and pepper flakes.
Another way to get the nutritional benefits of kale even if you don’t have access to fresh leafy greens is to use kale powder in the recipes that would usually call for chopped or blended kale.
It isn’t as exciting as dumping the greens into a saucepan and getting your chef on, but it’s basically as nutritious, especially if your options are between kale powder and no kale at all. A recommended serving of dark green vegetables is 1 ½ cups per week.
Combining kale powder with other greens (powdered or not) can help you bolster their cumulative nutritional content and get the proper serving you need to thrive.
Kale is one superfood whose credentials back up the hype. It’s hard to overstate kale’s positive properties, from its abundance of vitamins and minerals to the many ways it can be prepared and consumed without lessening those benefits.
It is rich in vitamins C and K and beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, but low in carbs and calories. It’s an excellent vegetable for cholesterol, blood pressure, and the heart, and an excellent addition to healthy diets everywhere.