By now you probably know you need to eat your vegetables, but does color matter? There is a reason people’s grandmas all over the world say “Eat your greens.” Green foods have a superpower that you probably studied in high school science — chlorophyll.
If you think back to that biology class, you might remember chlorophyll is the stuff that allows plants to absorb light in a process called photosynthesis. It’s the substance that makes the plant green.
The power of chlorophyll extends to the human body, too, even though it doesn’t produce it naturally as plants do. You do need to eat your vegetables, and they come in all colors, but the green ones have chlorophyll benefits.
Why Color Matters in Vegetables
Color is a critical element in most fruits and vegetables because pigment packs essential nutritional power. There are currently around 2,000 plant pigments known to science. These healthy pigments contain:
- 800 flavonoids
- 450 carotenoids
- 150 anthocyanins
Each one of them has dietary value. For example, the red in tomatoes contain lycopene, which is a carotenoid. There is evidence that lycopene and other carotenoids may work to prevent:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Prostate cancer
- Gastrointestinal tract cancer
The current theory is that lycopene might inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Finding ways to prevent cancer is critical at any age, but even more so as you get older.
Colors that matter most in produce include:
Of course, green is essential for another reason — chlorophyll.
What are the Chlorophyll Benefits?
Chlorophyll does more for plants than absorb light and look pretty. It creates a barrier that helps ward off bacteria. Chlorophyll is known to kill strep, staph and other potentially dangerous organisms. That antibacterial effect extends to humans, as well.
Eating chlorophyll also increases the number of red blood cells in the body. More red blood cells mean better oxygenation to the organs and tissues and more energy for you. That extra green might be just the boost you need to get through a hard day or walk that additional 1,000 steps.
Other known health benefits of chlorophyll include:
- It prevents carcinogens from binding to organ cells lowering the risk of certain types of cancer.
- It breaks down calcium oxalate to increase the elimination of kidney stones.
- It may keep the body from absorbing a mold toxin linked to liver cancer.
There is more than enough proof that chlorophyll does a body good, but current research suggests it may promote a type of photogenesis in humans.
The Human Plant?
Photogenesis is strictly a plant process, but there is some indication that diets rich in chlorophyll provide a similar benefit. Cells are like little ecosystems, each with its power source — the mighty mitochondrion.
Technically, the mitochondrion is an organelle, which means it’s an “organ” inside of a cell. You can think of it as the battery of the cell. Mitochondria, the plural of mitochondrion, generates Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is energy.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Cell Science found that sunlight can increase the production of ATP in cells of mammals. The researchers were able to prove that the mitochondria in these cells could capture more light and synthesize more ATP when they had chlorophyll on board.
It will take more than this one study to prove that chlorophyll has light absorbing properties in humans but it could explain why eating green foods provides an added nutritional bonus.
What Green Vegetables Should You Be Eating?
The simple answer is any green is good for you. All green vegetables contain some chlorophyll. They wouldn’t be green if they didn’t. Some vegetables do contain higher amounts of chlorophyll, though, such as:
- Brussel sprouts
- Green cabbage
- Green olives
- Romaine lettuce
- Turnip greens
- Bell peppers
- Collard greens
- Green beans
Adding more of these veggies increases your chlorophyll intake.
Thinking Beyond the Chlorophyll Benefits
There is more to love in green veggies than just chlorophyll. Green vegetables are naturally low in calories and carbs, assuming you don’t add a lot of butter to them. Certain greens have a high water content, too, like cucumbers. They can help keep you hydrated.
Most are also a rich source of antioxidants. These are compounds that prevent oxidation damage that can occur with aging or exposure to environmental toxins. They are also excellent sources of essential vitamins like A, C and E.
Not all green vegetables are created equal. Some have extra benefits such as:
- Avocados – An excellent source of healthy fat and good for the eyes.
- Nopales – Nopales are a type of edible cactus leaf that is high in fiber and vitamin C. They may also lower blood sugar.
- Kale – Crunchy, leafy greens like kale contain vitamin K and omega-3 fatty acids for heart and brain health.
- Brussels spouts – Rich in potassium to help lower blood pressure.
- Green beans – High in fiber and may help lower both cholesterol and blood sugar.
How Much is Too Much Green?
Life is all about balance and that is true when it comes to nutrition, too, unless you are talking about vegetables. Eat as many as you want.
You don’t necessarily have to eat only green vegetables, either. You get more benefit and enjoyment from your meals if you mix it up a bit. Think colorful as opposed to just green. Ideally:
- Kids under the age of 3 will get at least one cup of veggies a day
- Girls over the age of 9 need at least two cups
- Girls over the age of 13 need 2 ½ cups
- Boys over the age of 9 should have at least 2 ½ cups
- Boys over the age of 13 need as much as 3 cups
- Adult women should plan on at least 2 ½ cups
- Adult men need 3 cups
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends you fill every plate at least a quarter of the way with vegetables. If you want more chlorophyll in your diet, though, make them green.