The 4 Best Leafy Greens from the African Heritage Diet, According to a Dietitian

Leafy greens play a central role in the African Heritage Diet. Here are four you can prepare today!

Hundreds of nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains are indigenous to the African continent, where the cuisines of each country and region are as diverse as the crops that grow there. Our series, African Heritage Diet as Medicine: How Black Food Can Heal the Community, explores the African Heritage Diet and highlights some of the most nutrient-dense foods found on the African continent and treasured by the diaspora. This dietary pattern—introduced by Oldways—promotes health outcomes associated with longevity and increased vitality and features foods that are most likely to be available worldwide.

Leafy greens play a central role in the African Heritage Diet, due to their abundance throughout the African continent and regions associated with the African diaspora. They are packed with health-promoting nutrients, which is why you'll find families tending subsistence gardens bursting with a wide variety of greens, such as collards, callaloo and turnip greens. The greens are harvested at the peak of their flavor and cooked up into delicious dishes likeCollard & Rice Dumplings with Mamba 9 Sauce and Turnip Green Pesto.

The importance of leafy greens in diasporic cuisine is the reason why they are also central to the African Heritage Diet Food Pyramid, which was established by the food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways as a way to highlight the rich food traditions of people with African roots.

Sometimes referred to as "leafy vegetables" or "greens," leafy greens are the edible leaves of plants. Dietitians agree that they are a must-have ingredient in a healthy eating pattern because of their nutritional profile. Leafy greens are brimming with nutrients such as folate, calcium, potassium, magnesium and fiber, per a 2021 study published in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Furthermore, diets that include plenty of vegetables may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases and certain types of cancer.

a collage of African Heritage diet greens and a pan with a pattern featured
Tambra Stevenson

Despite their impressive benefits, we're not eating enough of them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only about 10% of U.S. adults meet the recommended daily 2 to 3 cup-equivalents of vegetables, including leafy greens. This limited intake could be due to factors like flavor, preferences and cost.

If you are looking to increase your green vegetable intake in addition to adding other greens like lettuce, spinach and kale, look to the African Heritage Diet. This eating pattern boasts a plethora of delicious, nourishing green leaves that have become more available in American markets as more people from Africa, the Caribbean and, indeed, other parts of the world migrate to the United States.

Here are four of the most nutritious African Heritage Diet leafy greens you can prepare today.

1. Collard Greens

From Kenyan sukuma wiki and Zimbabwean muriwo to American collards and Brazilian couve, collard greens are one of the most beloved leafy greens in the African Heritage Diet.

A member of the Brassica oleracea family, which also includes cabbage and kale, this large, flat-topped green leaf is prized for its numerous varieties, ease of cooking and rich phytonutrient content. Even more so, collards are a good source of vitamins A, C and K and calcium, per the USDA. A 2021 review published in Frontiers in Plant Science indicated that the phytonutrients (or plant chemicals) in collards help reduce oxidative stress and support the immune system. They may also play a role in the prevention of certain types of cancer and chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Traditional ways of preparing collards include braising in broths flavored with other vegetables, as in our Gomen (Ethiopian-Style Collard Greens) recipe. You can also find pots of greens infused with tastes from specks of animal protein, such as beef bones, ham hocks or turkey necks, as in our Collard Greens recipe.

Here's a dietitian tip: When collards are braised or stewed for a period of time, a rich, dark-colored liquid known as pot likker forms. Don't throw it away! It is jam-packed with nutrients and can be deliciously seasoned with spices and other ingredients. Use cornbread, rice, bread, ugali (which is a cornmeal porridge) and other starches to sop up this goodness and enjoy it as part of your meal.

2. Callaloo

Callaloo is a popular Caribbean specialty made from leafy greens that traditionally accompanies many delicious dishes. Depending on the island, the type of leaf used to make callaloo may vary. In Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and the Dominican Republic, you may enjoy dasheen (also called taro or colocasia esculenta), while in Jamaica, Belize and Guyana, amaranth leaves are the preferred green.

According to a 2020 article published in Scientific Reports, amaranth leaves are packed with health-promoting nutrients. Amaranth leaves are rich in vitamin C, carotenoids and other antioxidants that help protect against arthritis, cancer, cataracts, heart disease and retinopathy. And taro leaves are just as nutrient-dense. Per the USDA, a single cooked cup provides between 57% to 68% and 34% to 43% of the daily vitamin C and A needs for adults, respectively. Taro leaves are also believed to play a role in the prevention of inflammation and reduction in the incidence of diabetes and cancer, per a 2022 review in Food Chemistry.

Recipes for callaloo are varied across the Caribbean islands. It is a vegetable dish that is enjoyed as a standalone side or simmered and combined with ingredients such as coconut milk, crab, okra, saltfish, tomatoes and onions. If you love sautéed spinach, you must try callaloo. It cooks just as easily and combines well with other ingredients, as shown by this Callaloo Frittata recipe.

3. Cassava Leaves

The cassava plant, also known as yuca, manioc, tapioca plant or Manihot esculenta, is enjoyed in numerous countries throughout the world. The tuberous root can be turned into everything from fufu, popular in many West African countries, to crispy yuca "fries," which are a more contemporary addition to the extensive ways the plant can be enjoyed by people at home and in restaurants alike. Yet it's not just the root that holds an important place in the diets of people with African roots. The leaves of the cassava plant (also called tapioca leaves) are a central ingredient in the soups, stews and sauces served in many African homes. They are rich in protein and a source of dietary fiber, carotenoids and vitamins A and C, per 2022 research in Foods.

Cassava, both the leaves and root, can be poisonous if eaten raw due to its high levels of cyanide (a toxic chemical). However, traditional processes, such as pounding, grinding, fermenting and boiling neutralize the toxins and make the plants safe for consumption, per a 2022 article in Applied Food Research.

Recipe to Try: Bammy with Basil-Tamarind Pistou

4. Turnip Greens

A softer, lighter relative of collards, turnip greens are the leaf of the turnip (a root vegetable). Turnips look similar to beets, but rather than being a vibrant red color, they are predominantly white with purple coloring toward the top of the root. Turnip greens are usually enjoyed raw in salads and are often celebrated for their versatility in cooked dishes.

Scientifically part of the Brassica rapa species and similar to collards, turnip greens are rich in magnesium, vitamins C and A, per the USDA. Turnip greens contain isorhamnetin, a flavonoid (plant chemical) known for its positive health impacts. According to a 2020 review published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, isorhamnetin can help protect the heart, brain and other organs from damage from cellular inflammation, as well as protect against the development of tumors.

In the kitchen, turnip greens are used interchangeably with collards, though they have a slightly more bitter taste. They can be enjoyed stewed, braised, sautéed or even creamed with other greens. Due to their softer texture, be mindful not to cook them for too long.

Where to Buy These Healthy Greens

Ready to prepare these leafy greens? Look for them here:

  • Your local grocer or supermarket. Don't forget to also check the freezer and canned food aisles as well.
  • Your local farmers' market or community garden.
  • International food stores and online retailers that specialize in ingredients from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Asia.
  • Your neighbors' backyard garden and what they may be excited to share—many families enjoy growing a garden, and you never know what you might find.

The Bottom Line

Including African Heritage Diet leafy greens is a delicious and easy way to increase the nutritional content of your diet. These greens are packed with helpful nutrients, like protein, fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation and the risk of chronic health conditions. Plus, they're easy to work with, and they cook quickly. Add them to your stews, soups and signature dishes or enjoy them as a standalone vegetable or side. You can purchase them at your local grocers, farmers' markets, community gardens or in international food stores that specialize in ingredients from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Asia.

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