Popeye the Sailor knew a thing or two about using food for fuel!
Originally grown in Persia, spinach spread its way throughout Europe during the 13th century and made its way to the United States in the 1700s. Popularity grew over the next 100 years, and a hundred years after that, canned spinach hit the market, with Popeye driving its sales.
In groceries stores today it is still sold in a can, as well as frozen, and fresh in most produce sections. It can be eaten both raw and cooked; it tastes very differently depending on how it's served. My father hates cooked spinach, and my son hates it raw, so give both ways a try. Cooked spinach does make it more digestible, but it is still amazing nutritionally either way.
Spinach comes in 3 varieties, savoy, semi-savoy, and flat-leafed.
Flat-leafed is the most common here in the US. Light green in color, it is semi-sweet, tender, and spade-shaped, and is delicious raw or cooked. In the grocery store, you will usually find loose or prepackaged bags near the salad section.
Savoy spinach is dark green and curly. It is sort of bitter and crisp, so it's best when cooked. It is typically found in bunches.
Semi-Savoy is also somewhat curly and crisp. It is also found in bunches.
While spinach is easily found year-round in the grocery store, you may decide to grow your own. Spinach can be grown indoors or outside.
Check out this post from Anya over at Indoor Plants for Beginners on How to start an indoor spinach crop, even if you only have a small space to work with!
Or, if you are more adventurous or have some outdoor space to work with, spinach is a great little hardy crop, as long as you plant it at the right time. Best planted in the early spring or fall, it's quick to harvest. Check out Bonnie Plants' article including expert tips.
Most of us know, spinach is incredibly good for you, but here's the breakdown. Spinach packs high dosages of some key nutrients which when combined, make both more easily digested, giving you double the bang for your buck.
3.5 ounces or about 1/2 cups of spinach gives you over 1/3 of your daily Vitamin C requirement! Vitamin C, an antioxidant helps boost our immune system and helps repair body tissues. It also helps us absorb iron.
Spinach supports muscle growth, contraction, and relaxation with iron, magnesium, and calcium. Women aged 19-50's recommended daily allowance of Iron, or the amount a healthy individual should strive to consume daily, is 18mg. Women who are pregnant or lactating need more. The National Institute of Health states that 1 cup of cooked spinach contains 6 mg or 1/3 of your iron requirement. In addition to muscle health, iron reduces fatigue, improves concentration, and helps to restore sleep.
During a women's reproductive years, from the beginning of menstruation until menopause, it is common to have low levels of iron. A randomized control trial on menstruating women food increasing iron helped to reduce fatigue. So, you should aim to include food like these in your diet.
Another important nutrient in spinach for Spoonies is Magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in bone, muscles, soft tissues, and blood health. So, every cell in your body contains this nutrient and needs it to function properly. Magnesium and Fibromyalgia: A Literature Review, found that research results are mixed regarding treating pain and fatigue symptoms. However, one study within the review, Psychological and Sleep Effects of Tryptophan and Magnesium-Enriched Mediterranean Diet in Women with Fibromyalgia, found improvement in psychological factors including anxiety, body image, mood state, and disordered eating. So, it may not be something you need to supplement, but rather include as part of a healthy diet.
Calcium is another nutrient that protects against high blood pressure and helps maintain healthy bone density levels. Your body doesn't produce it naturally, so you need to make sure you consume enough in your diet. For those Spoonies who cannot eat dairy, it's important to include plant-based sources of calcium. Calcium is best absorbed with Vitamin D, which can be found in mushrooms, meat, egg yolks, fortified plant or nut milk, and of course, sunshine.
Spinach also contains Folate, Potassium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E. Folate, research shows, helps lower blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. It may also help lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers are studying the mechanisms behind it and potential treatment protocols.
Potassium helps conduct electrical impulses through the body, and it also helps regulate water balance, and blood pressure. Many of us Spoonies can suffer from edema (swelling from fluid in body tissue), so maintaining proper potassium levels is important.
Vitamin A helps maintain healthy vision and immune function. Vitamin A that comes specifically from plant sources has also been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, that meat and supplement sources have not been shown to impact.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant also found in spinach. In fact, research studies have shown to reduce oxidative stress which contributes to cell damage and risk of disease. It also helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and can help lessen severe period cramps known as dysmenorrhea. It is often included in products for healthy skin and nails. Those with cystic fibrosis and Chron's disease are at an increased risk of a Vitamin E deficiency.
Additionally, spinach is one of the few plants that have 50% of calories consisting of protein, important for muscle and brain function. However, at 4-5 grams per cup, it's not considered a main source of protein. But back to the study that showed an improvement in body image with a Meditteranean Style diet. How is that possible?
Spinach is a very low-calorie food choice. At only 29 calories per cup, fiber, and protein, it is particularly a good choice for Spoonies who are trying to lose weight.
So Who is Spinach Not For?
Those Spoonies with Oxalate issues. Spinach is high in oxalates and may irritate those conditions that are sensitive to them. What are oxalates you ask?
Oxalates are naturally occurring substances that many in the health and wellness community have deemed as dangerous for all. That's simply not true. For those whose doctors have advised a low oxalate diet, mainly those with kidney stones, or who are at risk of kidney stones, as well as those with Chron's disease, you will want to avoid spinach. However, nutritional research does not suggest that oxalates are problematic for others.
There are also anecdotal reports of low-oxalate diets helping with fibromyalgia pain, but there have not been any studies or evidence to support a relationship between oxalates and fibromyalgia symptoms. As always, I recommend keeping a food journal and experimenting with different food groups to test for reactions, as everyone has different sensitivities. As always, be sure to consult with your doctor or medical provider before beginning any new diet plan.
Cooking spinach significantly reduces oxalates. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry on the Effect of Different Cooking Methods on Vegetable Oxalate Content found that boiling spinach reduced it by up to 87%, and steaming the spinach reduced oxalates by up to 53%.
So overall, for most people spinach should be eaten as part of a variable, nutritionally dense diet.
To summarize, spinach is amazing for not only your muscles including the heart but all blood vessels and tissues. It provides invaluable building blocks that all of our cells need, but our body can't make on its own. Also, as part of a Mediterranean style diet, may help improve your mood, decrease anxiety, and help lead to a better body image by supporting a healthy weight.
The following recipe calls for 2lbs of spinach (or about 3 cups) which seems like a lot. But, it will cook down significantly, I promise! Remember those nutrition facts, it is hard to overeat. This recipe goes well with almost any dinner and combined with Vitamin D makes the Calcium more easily absorbed.
Even though some spinach comes prewashed, it's always a good idea to practice food safety and give it an extra rinse. Spinach, especially in bunches is known to hold on tight to dirt and sand which may be harboring harmful bacteria. Even though cooking helps to kill off any bugs, gritty sand can ruin the dish, so better safe than sorry. Using a salad spinner makes drying the leaves a snap.
Boiled and steamed spinach is a quick option, but I find sautéed in oil olive with light seasoning is delicious, and really brings out the flavor. If you have extra chopped onions or mushrooms in your fridge, you can always mix them in with spinach for added texture. Give my Simple Sautéed Spinach Recipe a try and let me know what you think in the comments section below. This dish pairs well with my Instapot Italian Chicken Tenders.
USDA Spinach, Raw. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168462/nutrients
Effect of iron supplementation on fatigue in nonanemic menstruating women with low ferritin: a randomized controlled trial. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/184/11/1247
Health benefits and nutritional value of spinach
National Institutes of Health. Iron
Magnesium and Fibromyalgia: A Literature Review
Psychological and Sleep Effects of Tryptophan and Magnesium-Enriched Mediterranean Diet in Women with Fibromyalgia
8 Unique Benefits of Vitamin E
Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content