Popeye was right: Spinach really does make your muscles stronger

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New study shows that a diet filled with leafy green vegetables can help improve strength and muscle function.

JOONDALUP, Australia — It turns out Popeye the Sailor Man was right, spinach really does make you stronger. A new study finds just one serving of leafy greens a day boosts muscle function, especially in the legs. Researchers say the cartoon icon’s favorite food can even protect older people from frailty.

A team from Australia reveals nitrate in green leafy vegetables is the secret behind their amazing power. Along with spinach, these foods also include broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, and kale.

“Our study has shown that diets high in nitrate-rich vegetables may bolster your muscle strength independently of any physical activity,” lead author Dr. Marc Sim from Edith Cowan University says in a media release.

His team tracked 3,759 Australians over a 12-year period. The results reveal leg strength is 11 percent greater in those eating around three ounces of greens a day. That’s the equivalent to a couple of spoons of spinach or three spears of broccoli. Study authors also discovered that walking speed improves by four percent in comparison to those with the lowest nitrate intake.

Muscle function is vital for maintaining good health, especially later in life. It reduces the risk of brittle bone disease, osteoporosis, and fractures or falls.

“With around one in three Australians aged over 65 suffering a fall each year, it’s important to find ways of preventing these events and their potentially serious consequences,” Dr. Sim adds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fall rates among American seniors is roughly the same. Around 36 million older adults will suffer a fall each year, over 32,000 resulting in death.

So are enough people eating leafy greens?

Dr. Sim believes greens are the most important vegetables for the human diet, despite being among the least popular. Spinach provided the greatest benefits, along with lettuce, kale, and even beetroot — which is abundant in nitrate.

“Less than one in ten Australians eat the recommended five to six serves of vegetables per day,” the study author reports. “We should be eating a variety of vegetables every day, with at least one of those serves being leafy greens to gain a range of positive health benefits for the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system.”

“It’s also better to eat nitrate-rich vegetables as part of a healthy diet rather than taking supplements. Green leafy vegetables provide a whole range of essential vitamins and minerals critical for health,” Sim continues. “Nevertheless, to optimize muscle function we propose that a balanced diet rich in green leafy vegetables in combination with regular exercise, including weight training, is ideal.”

The study follows previous research by the same team that discovered nitrate improves muscle function in older women, who are most prone to fall injuries. It also adds to growing evidence linking vegetables with good cardiovascular health.

One recent Edith Cowan University study revealed cruciferous types in particular — like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower — protect against hardening of the arteries. The team’s next step will be exploring strategies to increase leafy green vegetable consumption in the general population.

“We are currently recruiting for the MODEL Study, which examines how knowledge of disease can be used to prompt people in making long-term improvements to their diet and exercise,” Dr. Sim concludes.

The findings appear in The Journal of Nutrition.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.