Popeye had something right! It turns out that, thanks to the inner workings of both our cells and plants’ cells, eating raw spinach can help you increase your physical fitness and build muscle strength.
How does it work? It has a lot to do with the nitrate found in spinach, which helps your cells work more effectively!
How the Body Uses Nitrate
A few different studies have looked at how nitrate helps the body work more efficiently, build muscle faster, and exercise harder.
One, completed in the 1990s, found that the body can convert dietary nitrate into a substance called NO, which the body uses in cell metabolism to create and use energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, for the curious).
In the past few years, scientists have been taking a closer look at this process and how supplementing nitrate might be able to make exercise more effective and help improve the body’s metabolism at the cellular level.
A 2010 study, for example, found that supplementing with dietary nitrate (from beetroot juice, in particular) resulted in a reduced consumption of oxygen during high-intensity exercise.
This indicated that the cells needed to use less ATP to do their jobs, which also meant that muscles didn’t tire as quickly. In turn, this meant that participants were able to exercise for longer!
Exercise for longer, of course, and you’ll reap additional benefits from the physical exertion, such as increased weight loss, improved muscle strength, and better cardiovascular fitness. But be careful not to overtrain!
Spinach and Other Leafy Vegetables High In Nitrate
A 2011 study found that it’s not just beetroot that can give your body a nitrate boost. Spinach is also high in nitrate. Scientists found that study participants who ate the equivalent of 200 to 300 grams of spinach per day over the course of three days had better muscle performance when completing a bicycling exercise.
In other words, listen to Popeye – eating spinach can, in fact, help you obtain bigger, stronger muscles! (Although unlike Popeye, you will have to actually exercise. Eating spinach won’t make your biceps bulge all on its own.)
It’s important to note a few caveats here, however. One is that while spinach is high in nitrate, so are many other leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, as well as beets.
Another is to understand that there’s likely a significant difference between organic nitrate found in fruits and vegetables and inorganic nitrate found in processed meats, which has been linked with heart disease.
These studies do not indicate that you should go out and start eating a lot of lunch meat just because it contains nitrate, nor do scientists recommend supplementing your diet with nitrate pills.
However, this is a good reminder to eat your vegetables! While we typically think of protein as the most important food group for building muscle, it turns out that vegetables like spinach are incredibly important in this area as well.
What are your favorite ways to eat spinach? Share your recipes with us in the comments section below!