Healthful eating: Spinach

March 27, 2001

Healthful eating: Spinach


What other vegetables are on the top 10 healthiest list?
  • Sweet potato
  • Pumpkin
  • Kale
  • Red pepper
  • Broccoli
  • Carrot
  • Collard greens
  • Okra
  • Swiss chard

"And what it did for Popeye it'll do for you."

Maybe not.

Shirley Temple sang "You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby," fortifying the image of Popeye's instant source of energy.

The cartoon sailor man with bulging forearms would pop open a can of spinach to get him out of tight spots. He'd be strong, powerful, ready to take on Brutus and save his girl, Olive Oyl.

Spinach is probably not the source of Popeye's mighty "muskles" and super energy surge, because it isn't a great source of protein or calories.


But eating spinach has a lot of benefits, says Susan Adams, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Seattle.

Spinach is one of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's healthiest vegetables. Like the other vegetables that made the top 10 list of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit education and advocacy organization, spinach is high in carotenoids - antioxidants that act as chemical magnets to disarm damaging forms of oxygen in the body. Carotenoids are believed to play an anti-cancer role, enhance immunity and boost heart health.

Spinach is a "nutrient dense" food, says Adams, of Washington State University Cooperative Extension and a member of the university faculty. The depth of spinach's green color is a tip-off of its benefit. The strong hues - deep yellow, red or orange - of the other veggies on the top 10 signal their goodness.

Spinach is a good source of folate, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B-6, riboflavin, vitamin E and vitamin K, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Folate - you may have heard of folic acid's role in preventing birth defects - may also reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and colon cancer.

Adams doesn't think of spinach as a particularly good source of calcium, and the way the iron in spinach is chemically bound makes it less easily accessible than iron in other foods, she says.

Spinach is a good source of nutrients, Adams says. But Popeye might have been healthier if he relied on a wide variety of foods. Dietitians talk about variety all the time, Adams says.

One of the things about spinach Adams praises is its versatility and it's ability to be worked into other foods. Some people don't like the somewhat bitter taste of the leafy vegetable.

"If it doesn't taste good, people won't eat it," Adams says.

She recommends slipping a few fresh leaves onto a sandwich, where any bitterness can be masked by mustard or other condiments.

Although she hasn't tried it, she thinks she could get her son to eat spinach by "beating it up" in a food processor and putting it in the spaghetti sauce he likes.

Fresh spinach "cooks down" easily, and the moisture has to be squeezed out, Adams cautions. It's good in a stir-fry, but remember not to add it until the last minute. Adams also warns that fresh spinach leaves will continue to cook even after the pan has been pulled off the heat.

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