Spinach – The Super Healthy Power Food

Want to have muscles as big as Popeye’s? Learn how to save your Olive Oyl from the clutches of Bluto? No need to look further on how it can be done – the answer lies in Popeye’s favorite super meal – the mighty organic SPINACH! That may be the cartoon depiction of spinach, it may even have been a ploy to get children to eat more, but it is there any truth in its magical properties?

What is Spinach?

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is an edible flowering plant in the family Amaranthaceae. It is native to central and South Western Asia, but is now commonly grown all over the world. It is an annual plant (rarely biennial), which grows to a height of up to 30 cm. Spinach may survive over winter in temperate regions. The leaves are alternate, simple, and ovate to triangular, very variable in size from about 2–30 cm long and 1–15 cm broad, with larger leaves at the base of the plant and small leaves higher on the flowering stem. The flowers are inconspicuous, yellow-green, 3–4 mm diameter, maturing into a small, hard, dry, lumpy fruit cluster 5–10 mm across containing several seeds.

Spinach is thought to have originated in ancient Persia (modern Iran and neighboring countries). It is not known by whom, or when, spinach was introduced to India, but the plant was subsequently introduced to ancient China, where it was known as “Persian vegetable”. The earliest available record of the spinach plant was recorded in Chinese, stating it was introduced into China via Nepal (probably in 647 AD).

In AD 827, the Saracens introduced spinach to Sicily. The first written evidence of spinach in the Mediterranean was recorded in three 10th-century works: the medical work by al-Rāzī (known as Rhazes in the West) and in two agricultural treatises, one by Ibn Waḥshīyah and the other by Qusṭus al-Rūmī. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Arab Mediterranean and arrived in Spain by the latter part of the 12th century, where the great Arab agronomist Ibn al-ʻAwwām called it ‘the chieftain of leafy greens’. Spinach was also the subject of a special treatise in the 11th century by Ibn Ḥajjāj.

The prickly-seeded form of spinach was known in Germany by no later than the 13th century, though the smooth-seeded form was not described until 1552. (The smooth-seeded form is used in modern commercial production.)

Spinach first appeared in England and France in the 14th century, probably via Spain, and it gained quick popularity because it appeared in early spring, when other vegetables were scarce and when Lenten dietary restrictions discouraged consumption of other foods. Spinach is mentioned in the first known English cookbook, The Forme of Cury (1390), where it is referred to as spinnedge and/or spynoches. Smooth-seeded spinach was described in 1552.

In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France; she so fancied spinach, she insisted it be served at every meal. To this day, dishes made with spinach are known as “Florentine”, reflecting Catherine’s birth in Florence.

During World War I, wine fortified with spinach juice was given to French soldiers weakened by haemorrhage.

Spinach – the healthy food

Many nutritionists out there are nominating spinach for the grand Super Food prize, calling it the healthiest food of all time.

The hidden wonders of spinach are Lutein and Alpha Lipoic Acid. Lutein is a carotenoid antioxidant that is also found in eggs.  It is crucial for eye health, which is why eating lots of spinach (and even more eggs) will help you see better throughout your life and avoid eye diseases. It is more available to the body when paired with fat, and even more with choline (in egg yolks), so having fat-full dressing or olive oil on your spinach is a great idea. Pairing spinach with eggs makes a powerful one-two punch for eye degeneration!

Spinach is also evident in fighting diabetic heart disease. For atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, few foods compare to spinach in their number of helpful nutrients. Spinach is an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin A, the latter notably through its concentration of beta-carotene. These two nutrients are important antioxidants that work to reduce the amounts of free radicals in the body; vitamin C works as a water-soluble antioxidant and beta-carotene as a fat-soluble one. This water-and-fat-soluble antioxidant team helps to prevent cholesterol from becoming oxidized. Oxidized cholesterol is able to stick to and build up in blood vessel walls, where it can cause blocked arteries, heart attack or stroke. Getting plenty of vitamin C and beta-carotene can help prevent these complications, and a cup of boiled spinach can provide you with 294.8% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A along with 29.4% of the DV for vitamin C.

Spinach is also an excellent source of folate. Folate is needed by the body to help convert a potentially dangerous chemical called homocysteine that can lead to heart attack or stroke if levels get too high, into other benign molecules. In addition, spinach is an excellent source of magnesium, a mineral that can help to lower high blood pressure and protect against heart disease as well. A cup of boiled spinach contains 65.6% of the daily value for folate and 39.1% of the daily value for magnesium.

According to research spinach is a powerhouse of nutrients:

  • High in protein – The highest vegetable protein around! One cup spinach = 12% DV protein.
  • Super high Vitamin A
  • High Vitamin K – second only to cauliflower
  • Great source of folate/folic acid, particularly important for pregnant or nursing women
  • Over 25% DV of magnesium, iron, potassium, Vitamin C and manganese
  • Decent source of fiber
  • Carotenoids and flavonoids

How spinach improves your health:

  • Protects against heart disease (for multiple reasons!); makes muscles (especially the heart) stronger
  • Anti-diabetes
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Important for development of unborn babies
  • Protects against age-related memory loss
  • Eye health: prevents cataracts, macular degeneration (age-related blindness)
  • Cancer-fighting
  • Anti-inflammatory (how many issues can this trait treat? Arthritis is just one…)
  • Strong bones/anti-osteoporosis
  • Good for skin health (eczema, acne, psoriasis) and even preventing skin cancer from the sun
  • Natural diuretic and laxative (fights constipation)
  • Reduce frequency of migraine attacks

Cooked Spinach vs Raw Spinach

Benefits to cooking spinach:  cooking releases beta-carotene and lutein, and it also neutralizes oxalic acid or oxalate, a compound that inhibits the absorption of both calcium and iron.  This is why you don’t reuse the cooking water from spinach.  It’s recommended that you boil spinach quickly – just for a minute!

Benefits to raw spinach: Vitamin C and folate are both very heat-sensitive, so to obtain the maximum benefits of these compounds, eat spinach in your salads.

One caution: If you are very prone to kidney stones, you may want to focus more on cooked spinach, because oxalic acid is a major factor in kidney stones.

Even without Popeye’s recommendation, spinach contains more nutrients per calorie than any other food on the earth and is definitely one to include in your healthy diet.

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