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One Major Effect of Eating Spinach, Says Science

Looks like Popeye was right!

If you've ever watched Popeye on television, you likely have seen this famous sailor cartoon down a can of his favorite food in order to build strength—spinach. When he felt too weak to carry on whatever hard task he was about to face, he would just polish off a can of spinach, and his muscles would magically grow. While our muscles may not bulge the same way Popeye's do right after eating spinach, there actually seems to be science behind Popeye's famous muscle food.

Recent research from Edith Cowan University published in the Journal of Nutrition shows how consuming a nitrate-rich diet can significantly improve muscle function—especially when it comes to your lower limbs. A nitrate-rich diet would consist of lots of vegetables (particularly leafy greens), which includes Popeye's favorite muscle food itself—spinach. (Related: Here are The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now)

Another 2012 study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm also backs up this claim, which shows how nitrates can help with calcium regulation in human beings. When nitrates increase in the body, more calcium is released, which helps with muscle strength. This is specifically important for senior citizens who are looking for stronger muscles as they continue to age.

Spinach is considered one of the richest sources of nitrates, along with other popular leafy greens like kale, arugula, and chard. The number of nitrates in spinach can actually vary depending on where it's grown and the season, so you could be getting anywhere from 24 to 387 milligrams in a 100-gram serving, according to WebMD Medical Reference. A simple serving of spinach will give you enough nitrates for the day based on calculations from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Does this mean spinach should become your new workout recovery food? While nitrate-rich foods like spinach are helpful in improving muscle strength, it is positively linked with overall physical function compared to muscle building. Eating a sufficient amount of protein is still key for muscle recovery and building strength when connected with a workout. However, spinach has been proven to reduce stress on the muscles, which can help with strengthening muscle tissues, according to MedicineNet.

So if having a piece of your favorite grilled chicken on top of a bed of spinach with a complex carb—like brown rice or a whole-grain bun—sounds like something you want for lunch post-workout, go for it. Incorporating spinach into your meals is still a great way to keep your muscles strong and healthy for the long term.

Speaking of leafy greens, along with the boost in nitrates, here's What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Leafy Greens.

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a freelance health and nutrition journalist. Read more about Kiersten
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