Spinach: A Superfood with Impressive Health Benefits
Spinach, whether eaten raw or cooked, is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals. Here, we take an in-depth look into the health benefits of this green superfood.
8 Health Benefits of Eating Spinach
Proven Eye Health Protecting Qualities
Spinach is supercharged with pro-vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), with one ounce of raw spinach supplying over half of the Daily Value for pro-vitamin A. Carotenoids have many functions in the human body, but they are probably best known for their role in promoting healthy eyes and vision. A case-control study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in November 1994 found that the study participants in the highest quintile of carotenoid intake had a 43% lower risk for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in adults, compared with those in the lowest quintile. This study also found that found that people who frequently ate spinach or collard greens had a particularly low risk of developing this serious eye condition. To reap the eye health benefiting properties of spinach, make sure your spinach dishes contain some fat – carotenoids are fat-soluble nutrients which cannot be absorbed properly in the absence of fat.
Powerhouse of Anti-Asthma Nutrients
Spinach is loaded with folate, a vitamin that may provide extra health benefits for asthma sufferers. A large study published in the June 2009 edition of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that people with the lowest plasma levels of folate were 40% more likely to suffer from wheezing than those who had the highest levels of folate in their blood. This association was found to be dose-dependent, meaning that the higher the folate levels, the bigger the benefits. Spinach is also a good source of other asthma-fighting nutrients, including magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin B6.
Cholesterol-Lowering Potential of Raw Spinach
A study published in the journal Food Chemistry in 2007 compared the in-vitro bile acid binding capacity of eight vegetables – including spinach – in their raw, uncooked state. Of all the tested vegetables, spinach came out on top as having the strongest bile acid binding capacity, indicative of strong cholesterol-lowering potential. It is worth mentioning, however, that in a follow-up study investigating the bile acid binding capacity of cooked vegetables, spinach performed worse than the other vegetables. This study, published 2008 edition of the journal Nutrition Research, reported that all of the tested eight vegetables, with the exception of Brussels sprouts and spinach, experienced an increase in their bile acid binding capacity during steam-cooking.
Other Cardiovascular Benefits
High cholesterol is the single greatest risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, but the cholesterol-lowering potential of raw spinach is hardly its only cardiovascular benefit. As mentioned earlier, spinach is packed with folate, a nutrient that has been shown to control high homocysteine levels, another well-known risk factor for heart disease. Spinach is also a good source of magnesium, which has a relaxing effect on the arteries, and vitamin K, which helps prevent calcium from depositing in the blood vessel walls.
Powerfood for Athletes
The iron content of spinach has been grossly overstated in the media, but that doesn't necessarily mean Popeye was wrong about the energy-boosting properties of spinach. New research from Sweden suggests that nitrate, a compound found in spinach and other leafy green vegetables, improves oxygen usage in muscle cells' mitochondria, leading to reduced need for oxygen during exercise. But, before you start feeding your family with heaps of spinach and other foods rich in nitrates, keep in mind that nitrates may also have some side effects. In babies, for example, excessive amounts of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia, a potentially serious condition that can cause a baby's mouth, hands, and feet turn blue, and in some cases even lead to death.
A study published in the May 2005 issue of the journal Experimental Neurology found that spinach, spirulina algae, and blueberry supplements reduced damage from ischemic stroke in rats. An ischemic stroke typically occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, typically by a blood clot. Previously, the researchers responsible for this study had already demonstrated that diets enriched with blueberry, spinach, or spirulina reduced neurodegenerative changes in aged animals. Many of the neuroprotective effects of these foods have been attributed to their strong antioxidant properties, but it is also possible that the effects of phytochemicals found in these superfoods may go beyond simple antioxidant protection.
Benefits for the Skin
Still not impressed by the health benefits of spinach? Then, consider this: spinach contains a whole slew of antioxidants – such as carotenoids, vitamin C and vitamin E – which are thought to slow down the formation of wrinkles and other signs of aging skin. Spinach is also one of the best natural sources of glutathione, an antioxidant molecule that helps "recycle" other antioxidants by donating new electrons to inactive antioxidants so they can become active again.
Raw Spinach and Cancer Prevention
A study published in the November 1997 edition of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that women who ate raw spinach at least once a week had a reduced risk of breast cancer. Intake of cooked spinach also appeared to have a protective effect, but the effect was not as strong as in case of raw spinach. In another study, a high intake of lutein – the main carotenoid in spinach – was associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer in both men and women. The researchers identified spinach, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, oranges and orange juice, carrots, celery, and greens as the main dietary sources of lutein in the study participants, and concluded that incorporating these foods into the diet might help reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Side Effects and Safety Considerations
Spinach is rich in oxalates, an anti-nutrient that may be cause complications in some people, especially those with kidney problems. Furthermore, some experts believe that diets that are extremely high in oxalates but low in calcium may lead to problems associated with calcium deficiency, as oxalates can hinder the body's ability to absorb calcium.
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