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We all know that Popeye made himself super strong by eating spinach, but you may be surprised to learn that he may also have been helping to protect himself against inflammatory problems, oxidative stress-related problems, cardiovascular problems, bone problems, and cancers at the same time.
Even though virtually all vegetables contain a wide variety of phytonutrients—including flavonoids and carotenoids—spinach can claim a special place among vegetables in terms of its phytonutrient content. Researchers have identified more than a dozen different flavonoid compounds in spinach that function as anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents. (Some of these substances fall into a technical category of flavonoids known asmethylenedioxyflavonol glucuronides.) The anticancer properties of these spinach flavonoids have been sufficiently impressive to prompt researchers to create specialized spinach extracts that could be used in controlled laboratory studies. These spinach extracts have been shown to slow down cell division in human stomach cancer cells (gastric adenocarcinomas), and in studies on laboratory animals, to reduce skin cancers (skin papillomas). A study on adult women living in New England in the late 1980s also showed intake of spinach to be inversely related to incidence of breast cancer.
Excessive inflammation, of course, typically emerges as a risk factor for increased cancer risk. (That’s why many anti-inflammatory nutrients can also be shown to have anti-cancer properties.) But even when unrelated to cancer, excessive inflammation has been shown to be less likely following consumption of spinach. Particularly in the digestive tract, reduced inflammation has been associated not only with the flavonoids found in spinach, but also with its carotenoids. Neoxanthin and violaxanthin are two anti-inflammatory epoxyxanthophylls that are found in plentiful amounts in the leaves of spinach. While these unique carotenoids may not be as readily absorbed as carotenoids like beta-carotene or lutein, they still play an important role in regulation of inflammation and are present in unusual amounts in spinach.
Decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer is one health benefit of spinach consumption that should not be overlooked when talking about the anti-cancer properties of spinach. “Aggressive prostate cancer” is defined as stage III or IV prostate cancer which carries with it a Gleason score of at least 7. (Gleason scores are prostate cancer rating measurements that require lab studies of prostate tissue and evaluation of common tumor-related patterns.) Interestingly, in a recent study that evaluated possible prostate cancer-prevention benefits from a variety of vegetables including spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mustard and turnip greens, collards, and kale — only spinach showed evidence of significant protection against the occurrence of aggressive prostate cancer.
Most of the flavonoid and carotenoid nutrients found in spinach that provide anti-inflammatory benefits provide antioxidant benefits as well. Given the fact that spinach is an excellent source of other antioxidant nutrients — including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), and manganese —as well as a very good source of the antioxidant zinc and a good source of the antioxidant selenium—it’s no wonder that spinach helps lower risk of numerous health problems related to oxidative stress. Our blood vessels, for example, are especially susceptible to damage from oxidative stress, and intake of spinach has been associated with decreased risk of several blood vessel-related problems, including atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. (Interestingly, the blood pressure benefits of spinach may be related not only to its antioxidants, but also to some of its special peptides. Peptides are small pieces of protein, and researchers have discovered several peptides in spinach that can help lower blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme called angiotensin I-converting enzyme.)
Two of the carotenoids that are especially plentiful in spinach — lutein and zeaxanthin — are primary antioxidants in several regions of the eye, including the retina and the macula. Although we haven’t seen specific studies on spinach intake and prevention of eye-related problems like macular degeneration, we have seen studies showing that human blood levels of lutein can be increased by consumption of spinach in everyday amounts. We’ve also seen at least one group of researchers suggesting that spinach has a likely role to play in prevention of eye problems, including age-related macular degeneration.
The wealth of vitamin K provided by spinach is important for maintaining bone health. Vitamin K1 helps prevent excessive activation of osteoclasts, the cells that break down bone. Additionally, friendly bacteria in our intestines convert vitamin K1 into vitamin K2, which activates osteocalcin, the major non-collagen protein in bone. Osteocalcin anchors calcium molecules inside of the bone. All of these vitamin K-related mechanisms point to the importance of vitamin K-rich foods for bone health, and it is difficult to find vegetables that are richer in vitamin K than spinach. (On our World’s Healthiest Foods list, only kale provides more micrograms of vitamin K per cup.) Spinach is also an excellent source of other bone-supportive nutrients including calcium and magnesium.
So while spinach probably won’t make you super strong the minute you eat it, as it did for Popeye, it will promote your health and vitality in many other ways. It seems like Popeye was pretty smart after all.
Virtually all municipal drinking water in the United States contains pesticide residues, and with the exception of organic foods, so do the majority of foods in the U.S. food supply. Even though pesticides are present in food at very small trace levels, their negative impact on health is well documented. The liver’s ability to process other toxins, the cells’ ability to produce energy, and the nerves’ ability to send messages can all be compromised by pesticide exposure. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 report “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides,” conventionally grown spinach is among the top 12 fruits and vegetables on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found. Therefore, individuals wanting to avoid pesticide-associated health risks may want to avoid consumption of spinach unless it is grown organically.
Spinach is among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalates, naturally occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating spinach. Although early studies on spinach suggested possible interference of oxalates with iron absorption, more recent studies suggest that absorption of non-heme iron (iron from plants) is not significantly impacted by the oxalates contained in spinach. Laboratory studies have shown, however, that oxalates may interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. Exactly how much interference takes place in the case of spinach and calcium absorption is not clear, but at a minimum, you should expect to absorb a minimum of about 10% of the calcium from the spinach that you eat. For example, in one cup of boiled spinach containing about 285 milligrams, you can expect to absorb about 25-30 milligrams. For adults, the Adequate Intake (AI) level for calcium falls between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams. This recommended amount assumes an absorption rate of about 30%. In other words, about 300-360 milligrams of absorbable calcium are expected each day. While 25-30 milligrams is not an overwhelming amount of calcium from a serving of food, a cup of spinach is extremely low-calorie and can provide you with about 10% of the recommended calcium intake for very few (about 40) calories. Those circumstances make spinach a worthwhile addition to your diet with respect to calcium, even though spinach is not an outstanding source of this nutrient and should not be counted on to boost your calcium intake by large amounts. For more on this subject, please see “Can you tell me what oxalates are and in which foods they can be found?”
Spinach contain naturally occurring substances called purines. Purines are commonly found in plants, animals, and humans. In some individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, excessive intake of these substances can cause health problems. Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid. The health condition called “gout” and the formation of kidney stones from uric acid are two examples of uric acid-related problems that can be related to excessive intake of purine-containing foods. For this reason, individuals with kidney problems or gout may want to limit or avoid intake of purine-containing foods such as spinach. For more on this subject, please see “What are purines and in which foods are they found?”