Popeye was right: leafy greens important for muscle strength

Thursday, 08 April, 2021

Popeye was right: leafy greens important for muscle strength

It turns out there’s more than a grain of truth to the adventures of Popeye the Sailor and his muscle-boosting stash of spinach, with Edith Cowan University (ECU) researchers finding that eating just one cup of leafy green vegetables every day can boost muscle function.

The study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, found that people who consumed a nitrate-rich diet, predominantly from vegetables, had significantly better muscle function of their lower limbs. Poor muscle function is linked to greater risk of falls and fractures and is considered a key indicator of general health and wellbeing.

Researchers examined data from 3759 Australians taking part in the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute’s AusDiab study over a 12-year period. They found those with the highest regular nitrate consumption had 11% stronger lower limb strength than those with the lowest nitrate intake. Up to 4% faster walking speeds were also recorded.

The research found nitrate-rich vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, kale and even beetroot, provided the greatest health benefits. It suggests that while these leafy greens may arguably be some of our least favourite vegetables, they could be the most important.

“Less than one in 10 Australians eat the recommended five to six serves of vegetables per day,” noted lead researcher Dr Marc Sim, from ECU’s Institute for Nutrition Research.

“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.

“Our study has shown that diets high in nitrate-rich vegetables may bolster your muscle strength independently of any physical activity.

“Nevertheless, to optimise 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, a collaboration with Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, builds on Dr Sim’s previous research into nitrate and muscle function in older women. It also adds to growing evidence linking vegetables with cardiovascular health, including a recent ECU study into cruciferous vegetables and blood vessel health.

Dr Sim said the next step of his research 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,” he said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Sandra van der Steen

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