Remember Popeye the Sailor Man? Never shy about flexing his biceps, he was strong to the finish ‘cause he ate his spinach. As it turns out, this sailor was on to something.
New research published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that people who ate a diet rich in leafy green veggies — lettuce, spinach, or kale, for example — had significantly better muscle function, especially in the lower body. Those with the highest dietary intake of vegetables had 11 percent stronger lower limb strength than those with the lowest intake. Plus, their walking speeds were 4 percent faster.
What’s in those greens?
According to the study, the beneficial compound in leafy greens that boosts muscle strength is nitrates, which confused us at first, since we thought nitrates, often added to processed meats like bacon, were bad for you.
As it turns out, nitrates also occur naturally in some foods like vegetables, and studies suggest that eating foods rich in natural nitrates have a number of health benefits. Whereas eating foods high in added nitrates can cause health risks.
Whew! Glad that’s straightened out.
While the health benefits of filling our plates with high-fiber, nutrient-dense greens is nothing new, it’s definitely news when we talk about foods that support strong muscles. For those we usually think protein, protein, and more protein. However, this study showed that other healthy foods are equally important for muscle strength.
“Many people don’t realize that greens and veggies are actually a source of protein,” says MYX Trainer Justin Flexen, who switched to a plant-based diet in 2020. “When I made the switch, I put on lean muscle mass and my workouts became better. People think that if they don’t get a ton of protein they won’t be able to add or maintain mass. Of course, it depends on what your individual goal is, but in my experience, I got stronger and leaner on a plant- based diet.”
Justin says he also noticed a HUGE increase in his energy levels (higher) and quality of sleep (better). Plus, his skin tone improved significantly: “I’ve got that glowy vibe going on now!”
We’ll have whatever he’s having
All of us should try to eat a variety of vegetables every day, with at least one serving of leafy greens "to gain a range of positive health benefits for the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system," said study’s lead researcher Marc Sim, Ph.D.
“One super easy way to do that is to add a big handful of leafy greens like spinach to your morning (or anytime) smoothie,” Justin says.
Other than those classic greens you know, and (hopefully) love, the researchers noted that beets are another good source of healthy dietary nitrates.
"Muscle function is vital for maintaining good overall health, especially bone strength later in life,” researcher Sim said. “To optimize muscle function, we propose that a balanced diet rich in green leafy vegetables in combination with regular exercise, including weight training, is ideal."
So MYX—and Justin—have you covered on the workouts, but we’ll leave the leafy greens up to you.