Health Benefits of Kale

Updated on September 20, 2017
Kale as you'd find it in the grocery
Kale as you'd find it in the grocery | Source

Kale has been a staple of the northern European diet for centuries. However the health benefits of kale are only more recently being recognized in the US and elsewhere. Kale, a leafy vegetable sometimes included in salads, is actually not a part of the lettuce or spinach families. It's a cruciferous vegetable more like broccoli and cabbage.

Also known as borecole, kale prefers cooler climates and actually tastes better after a gentle frost. That's why it is more popular in Europe historically. So much so that the Scottish phrase for having a stomach bug is being “off his kale.” In the U.S., it is in season and available in stores throughout the winter and early spring.

Even without all the micornutrients, kale would be a great nutritional choice. Each cup contains only 36 calories and no fat. But luckily for us all, it is about as close as you can get to a “superfood.” And you don't have to buy expensive bottled juices or supplements in pill form to get it. In fact, it is a spectacular back yard or balcony garden offering. You can even grow kale indoors, as this article describes.

Health Benefits of Kale: Vitamins & Minerals

Kale contains a very high concentration of vitamins K, A, C, B6 and E. The one everyone gets excited about in kale is vitamin K. K is a strong anti-inflammatory, which we discuss more below. Vitamin C is great during cold and flu season, which happens to also be kale season. It helps the body's immune system fight viruses and increases your metabolism to help lose weight. Vitamin A is important for eye health. It helps reduce and prevent macular degeneration as well as other eye diseases.

Minerals like copper, manganese, calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron are also found in great quantities in kale. There is actually more iron per calorie in kale then there is in beef. That makes it a very important source of iron for vegans and vegetarians. Iron helps reduce the chance of developing anemia, and is important in hemeglobin production. A steady source of iron helps your blood carry enough oxygen for your body to use. For vegans and people with lactose issues, kale also has more calcium than milk, and is easier to digest.

A single cup of kale has about 30 percent of your daily recommended intake of the Omega 3 fatty acid ALA. This helps your nervous system maintain itself, is incredibly important (along with the folic acid in kale) for pregnant and lactating women, and helps your skin protect itself and heal from UV ray damage.

Antioxidant Health Benefits of Kale

One of the sources of the health benefits of kale is its unusual concentration of anti-oxidants. Even compared to other veggies and its own cruciferous siblings broccoli and cabbage, it has a lot of the antioxidants Lutein and Beta Carotene. Tests have shown that eating kale directly leads to higher blood concentrations of those antioxidants in kale eaters. This is not always the case with other foods and especially supplements.

Kale plant ready for harvest.
Kale plant ready for harvest. | Source

Fiber Content of Kale

Fiber reduces cholesterol and reduces the amount of bile acid your liver has to work to create. The fiber in kale benefits you in two ways: first it binds with the bile acids in your intestines and the fat those acids attached themselves to. With the high fiber content diets, this is expelled in your stool rather than being absorbed back into your system. Since those bile acids and fat (including dietary cholesterol) are getting carried out with your stool, your liver doesn't have to reprocess the bile acids. Rather, it makes new bile out of the cholesterol that's already in your body. Thus, fiber helps your blood cholesterol go down.

It's important not to add fiber too quickly into your diet. Too much too quickly can make you gassy. There's a reason beans, with their own high fiber content, are called “the musical fruit.”

Kale's Anti-inflammatory Properties

Inflammation is a root cause of many impacts of disease. Arthritis, autoimmune disease, and Alzheimer's all cause many of their negative effects through the inflammatory response of the body. Vitamin K in kale is a powerful anti-inflammatory, and kale is a remarkable source of it. However, be careful adding too many Vitamin K-containing foods to your diet if you are on blood thinning medication.

Kale also includes over 40 flavonoids, including Kaempferol and Quercetin. These come from brightly colored vegetables. Flavonoids (called “Vitamin P” in the 50s and earlier) don't add anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories themselves, but rather induce your body to create chemicals that are anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Anti-Cancer Health Benefits of Kale

The micronutrients in Kale have been shown to help reduce the chance of breast cancer and inhibit growth in women who already have it. Indole-3-carbinol helps metabolize estrogen in a way that has been preliminarily shown to reduce breast cancer growth and help with lupus. Other recent studies have also shown that this chemical in kale reduces the rate of growth in existing colon cancer.

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How to Add More Kale to your Diet

The most effective way to add more to your diet is to grow kale yourself and harvest immediately before eating or adding it to recipes. Kale and especially the flavanoids in it are extremely perishable, so growing it in your own garden will let you get much more of the health benefits of kale than buying it at a grocery store.

If you are pressed for space or want to start eating kale while you're waiting for your plants to grow, look for deeply colored leaves and firm texture. They should be displayed cool in the store because warm temperatures make kale wilt. Look for bundles with smaller leaves since those are more tender and mild tasting. Once home, they will keep in the fridge for 5 days. Longer than that it will get bitter.

Wash your store bought kale very thoroughly. Commercially grown non-organic kale tend to have a lost of pesticides. Kale's broad and curly leaves are an absolute bounty for certain bugs, so commercial farms often use a lot of pesticides to protect their crop.

Mix your kale preparation styles. Raw kale in salad is better for the anti-oxidants and anti-cancer properties. However, lightly steamed kale is better for releasing the fiber health benefits. Boiling, stir-frying or sauteing kale will eliminate almost any benefit you could get. So don't do that.

Kale can also be added to smoothies or juices. Be sure to cut out the tough center stem, which many people don't like for its tough texture and bitter taste.

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