Sure, kale is the powerhouse green everyone is talking about these days, from kale chips to kale juice, but Popeye was no fool when he downed can after can of spinach.
This delicate green – despite being the butt of the overused joke about the woman who heads off on a blind date with a piece of green spinach stuck between her teeth - should be a dietary staple…even if you don’t have someone to point out wayward bits before you head out of the house for an appointment/date.
A nutritional powerhouse
Spinach is packed with vitamins, including more vitamin K. It is difficult to find another vegetable with as much vitamin K.
According to the website World’s Healthiest Foods, a single cup of cooked spinach has at least 24 percent of the recommended daily allowance of numerous nutrients, including:
Vitamin K: 987 percent
Vitamin A: 105 percent
Manganese: 84 percent
Folate: 66 percent
Magnesium: 39 percent
Iron: 36 percent
Copper: 34 percent
Vitamin B2: 32 percent
Vitamin B6: 26 percent
Vitamin E: 25 percent
Calcium: 24 percent
Vitamin C: 24 percent
Potassium: 24 percent
It also offers fiber, protein, vitamins B1 and B3, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium and phosphorus, as well as more than a dozen different flavonoid compounds, which researchers have shown may help support inflammation management in the body as well as the immune system. (Ref. 1)
Get stronger, just like the Sailor Man
Researchers in Sweden recently found that eating spinach every day helps make muscles “profoundly” more efficient, so they need less oxygen to perform the same task.
It was not the iron in spinach, however, but the vegetable’s nitrates instead that had such a powerful effect on muscles.
“It is like a fuel additive for your muscles – it makes them run much more smoothly and efficiently,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Eddie Weitzberg of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
The study found that those who ate spinach – which is rich in nitric oxide, a nutrient that improves circulation by opening up blood vessels – wasted between three and five percent less energy during workouts, so their muscles worked more efficiently.
“We know that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can help support cardiovascular health and function, but the active nutrients haven't been clear,” said Weitzberg. “This is a profound and significant effect. It shows that Popeye was right all along.” (Ref. 2)
Not only can spinach help improve muscle performance, if can also strengthen your brain, so your memory stays strong, even as you age.
Spinach is rich in folate, which helps regulate the actions of neurotransmitters that send messages between brain cells, so the brain functions properly. Folate lowers the levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which may disrupt neurotransmitter activity, potentially leading to neurological decline.
Spinach also contains high levels of the important amino acid L-tryosine, which unlike homocysteine, is one of the good guys. It helps the brain better use the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which help keep your brain alert and focused, even during period of anxiety and stress.
If you have a stress-filled job with plenty of daily deadlines and regular multi-tasking, add spinach to a morning omelette or smoothie, and see how much more calmly you can approach a busy day.
How to include spinach in your diet
While cooked spinach is a tasty side, there’s no reason not to take advantage of all the ways spinach can be added to your diet.
Use it in salads in place of lettuce to ramp up the nutrients, add spinach to a green apple, kale and cucumber smoothie, include handfuls in pasta sauce to boost the benefits of Sunday supper, top pizza with a mix of fresh baby spinach leaves and basil, add it to almost any egg dish including omelettes, frittatas and Eggs Benedict, toss handfuls in soup to finish or make traditional Greek spanakopita, a mix of spinach, feta cheese, eggs, diced onions and filo dough.
To ensure you have plenty of spinach on hand, add it to your garden if you’re able to grow one – and keep the rabbits/bugs away - but if not, consider adding a box garden to a windowsill to ensure that you have some of the nutrient-dense green on hand.