It’s all about the nitrates
Remember the old cartoon character Popeye? Remember how he used to squeeze a can of spinach until it burst, and all the spinach flew into his mouth? Remember how big his muscles got after that? I certainly do because he was one of my favorite characters. As a kid, I didn’t really believe that could happen. I was sure it was just a ploy to get kids to eat spinach, which I liked anyway. Well, fast forward many decades and science proves that Popeye (and your mom) was on to something. A new study from Australia published in The Journal of Nutrition shows eating a diet containing leafy green vegetables will not only make you stronger, but it will also improve your muscle function, especially in the legs. That’s great news for older people suffering from frailty. So, what is the secret behind spinach? It’s nitrates!
It’s all about the nitrates found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce, kale, cabbage and broccoli. That’s the secret. Nitrates and nitrites are found naturally in soil and water as part of the earth’s nitrogen cycle. They’re also found in many other vegetables, for example beetroot. Nitrates become nitrites through digestion when bacteria in the mouth and enzymes in our body break down the nitrates into nitrites. Nitrites usually transform into two distinct compounds in our body: Nitric oxide (good for human health) and Nitrosamines (bad for human health depending on the level of exposure). Around 80% of the nitrates and nitrites we consume are naturally occurring from the plants we eat. Although this post focuses on nitrates, a word of warning is in order – watch out for nitrate and nitrite preservatives! Even something as good for you as nitrates can be bad in large doses.
We preserve meats by adding nitrates and nitrites in small, regulated quantities to keep the food from spoiling prematurely. But when we expose nitrates and nitrites to high heat in the presence of amino acids (naturally found in meat), they can transform into nitrosamines, some of which are carcinogens. When we grill or high-heat fry processed meats, many of the nitrites transform into nitrosamines. Research tells us that diets high in processed meats that typically contain nitrate and nitrite preservatives can harm our health, and we should eat them in moderation. As with most things, the amount makes the difference. But let’s return to the Australian study I mentioned earlier.
Lead author Dr. Marc Sim from Australia’s Edith Cowan University and his team, who tracked nearly 4,000 Australians for 12 years, found that participants who ate around three ounces of greens daily increased their leg strength by 11% without exercise. “Our study has shown that diets high in nitrate-rich vegetables may bolster your muscle strength independently of any physical activity,” Dr. Sim said in a media release. Three ounces isn’t much. It works out to a couple of spoons of spinach or roughly three spears of broccoli. Moreover, the participants boosted their walking speed by four percent compared to those who ate fewer nitrates. So, why is this important?
Fewer injuries from falls
The older we get, the more critical it is to maintain good health, including balance and flexibility. Balance and flexibility are related to muscular function, which is critical in reducing the risk of such brittle bone diseases as osteoporosis and reducing fractures from 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. Sims points out. Americans are also in the same boat, it turns out. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says around 36 million older adults will fall each year, 32,000 of whom will die from injuries related to the fall.
Are you eating enough nitrates?
Although leafy greens are not terribly popular, research indicates that they are the most important nitrate-rich vegetables we can eat. Of the most common leafy greens, spinach showed to provide the most significant benefits. Dr. Sim says fewer than 10% of Australians eat five to six servings of vegetables per day. “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,” according to Dr. Sim. Eating nitrate-rich vegetables that provide essential vitamins and minerals is better than taking supplements, he adds. The best way to optimize muscle function and maintain good health is to combine a balanced diet rich in green leafy vegetables with regular exercise, including weight training. But wait, there’s more! The same team also found that eating vegetables improved cardiovascular health and protected against cancer.
A wide range of benefits
A recent Edith Cowan University study linking vegetables with good cardiovascular health showed that broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower — protect against hardening of the arteries. Beetroot, which is packed with nitrates, offers several benefits. The nitrates in beetroot juice can lower blood pressure, protect intestines, combat dementia, increase libido, improve endurance and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and strokes! These vegetables are also packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals that can help protect you from heart disease, diabetes and cancer (breast and prostate). They can also help you live longer. When shopping for leafy greens, make sure you always choose crispy leaves with a fresh green color. If the leaves are turning yellow or brown, they’re going bad and losing their flavor.
Good eyesight and good memory
Vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin – antioxidants typically found in leafy greens – help slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. In one study, women who ate more than one serving of kale (or collard greens) a week were 57% less likely to have glaucoma than those who ate them no more than once a month. Another study showed that, thanks to the folate, beta-carotene and vitamin K that leafy greens contain, people in their early 80s “who ate one to two daily servings of green leafy vegetables had the cognitive function of a person 11 years younger, compared with those who avoided them.” So, think about what and how you eat. Are you eating all the greens and getting all the nitrates that your body needs? If not, get started!