Decades ago, children were delighted by the antics of the cartoon character, Popeye. The scrawny pipe-smoking sailor gained remarkable (temporary) strength—in emergencies—by downing a can of spinach. The transformation was instantaneous. He sprouted absurdly huge biceps, allowing him to fend off the gigantic bully, Brutus.
It was all in good fun, but it sent a none-too-subtle message to generations of growing children: Eat your spinach if you want to grow up to be strong.
Iron Is Just the Beginning
While downing a can of spinach will not cause you to immediately burst out of your shirt, it’s true that spinach does a body good. For starters, spinach is an excellent source of dietary iron. Just 100 grams (slightly more than four ounces) provides up to 21% of the Daily Value for dietary iron.
Of course, iron is an essential element. By definition, we must have it and can only obtain it through the diet. Most of us learn in school that iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the elegantly folded protein with iron at its heart. Iron is also at the metaphorical heart of red blood cells’ ability to transport oxygen from the lungs to the body’s cells.
Adequate iron is crucial for optimal health. Without sufficient iron, the body struggles to produce red blood cells in sufficient quantities. Red blood cells are needed to efficiently deliver oxygen throughout the body. Tiny organelles called mitochondria dwell within most cells. They’ve been called the cells’ “powerhouses”. Oxygen is needed to drive cellular respiration (in essence, “burning” glucose for energy). The mitochondria can’t produce enough energy to maintain optimal cellular function without it.
Carotenoid Antioxidants for Better Eye Health
Of course, there’s far more to spinach than mere iron. Like most dark green leafy vegetables, spinach is loaded with all sorts of beneficial nutrients. Examples include the important antioxidant, vitamin A, as well as phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds) such as antioxidant polyphenols. Among other potent, beneficial compounds, spinach is an excellent source or lutein and zeaxanthin; two compounds that have been linked to better eye health and a lower risk of certain eye diseases.
In fact, people with higher intakes of lutein may enjoy enhanced protection against the common age-related eye condition, macular degeneration. These pigment molecules are distributed throughout the healthy macula; a structure located near the center of the eye’s retina. Lutein and zeaxanthin are believed to accumulate in the macula to help protect it from free radical damage.
Free radicals are rogue molecules that wreck havoc in the body if they are not neutralized by antioxidants. Although the body produces some of its own antioxidant compounds, it also relies heavily on dietary antioxidants, from foods such as spinach, kale, arugula, and many other whole foods.
Dark Green Leafy Antioxidants and Blood Lipids
Research shows that adding spinach to the diet yields measurable antioxidant effects in the body. Antioxidants are generally considered beneficial because they fight damage from highly reactive compounds, called free radicals, which are believed to cause cellular damage. Free radicals can lead to various adverse effects associated with an increased risk of disease, and even aging, if left unchecked.
For example, recent research suggested that adding spinach to the diets of rats bred to model human cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high blood cholesterol levels, was associated with significant decreases in lipid peroxidation. This effect could mean that spinach combats the effects of having too-high “bad” LDL-cholesterol levels. High LDL levels is considered an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Indirect evidence, based on observations of behavior patterns among large populations of people (so-called epidemiological studies) suggest that people who have higher levels of dietary antioxidants in their bloodstreams are less likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or have evidence of inflammation in the body. So, while it won’t give you ludicrously large biceps, spinach may help you live healthier.