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Popeye Ate Spinach, So It Must Be Great! Right?

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

I remember seeing Popeye eating his spinach whenever he needed strength. He'd just pop open a can and, voila, he'd get the nutrition he needed to beat the bad guy and save the day! As a result, I thought that I had to eat spinach just like Popeye if I wanted to be big and strong, too.

But now that I understand more about nutrition, I’ve learned that spinach is not all it was cracked up to be! Through my research, I've gained a better understanding of the health components in fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods. Turns out, that the spinach Popeye would down before hitting Brutus is not a nutritional powerhouse after all.

Where We Got It Wrong

Spinach, as it turns out, does not have the huge supply of iron we were led to believe. A cup of raw spinach doesn't even supply a full milligram! Besides that, spinach is high in oxalic acid (yes, the same substance that causes kidney stones) which essentially "kidnaps" the iron spinach does have. As a result, the absorption of iron from spinach is quite poor.

So, where did our ideas about spinach come from? It all goes back to the late 1920’s, when the crash of the stock market left millions in poverty and suffering from malnutrition. At the time, anemia was a big problem. Few people had access to the foods that would supply needed nutrients. As a result, they suffered from symptoms that included fatigue, brittle nails and general malaise. Canned spinach was widely available but was not a popular dietary choice. The vegetable was added to Popeye's myth to encourage its consumption.

This vegetable became the queen of the health world, a universal cure-all. Child a bad student? The answer was industrial quantities of spinach. Father coming home tired from work? Mother (who, in this era, was nearly always the one tasked with taking care of the home) would set the table with a massive bowl of spinach at the evening meal. No matter what the person's problem, it seemed like eating some spinach was the solution.

However, our understanding of nutrition was, at the time, primitive. We didn't know anywhere near as much about vitamin content and absorption as we do now. At the end of the 19th century, scientists analyzed spinach. They deemed it healthy because of a chemical reaction that took place with a compound called "thicyanate." As a result of these early experiments, they concluded that spinach was a healthy option.

This miscalculation was compounded in 1970, a year before I was born. The German scientist Erich Von Wolf became the first person to measure the iron content of spinach. However, a misplaced decimal point rendered his research ineffective: when he meant to say that spinach had 3.5 milligrams of iron per gram, he wrote, instead, that it contained 35 milligrams per 100 grams. That is, ten times as much iron as the vegetable actually had! And so, spinach was erroneously added to the list of highly iron-rich foods.

Besides all else, we have learned that we cannot assimilate iron from vegetable sources unless they also contain significant amounts of vitamin C. The 8.4 milligrams in one cup of spinach, however, provides just 14% of the RDA for this valuable vitamin.

What You Should Eat for Iron Instead

Many people enjoy spinach, so, there is no problem with eating it in moderation if you like the taste. But, don't dig into a bowl of spinach expecting to gain huge nutritional benefits. Even lettuce is a better source of iron, with 4 milligrams of iron in ever 100 grams!

There are many better sources of iron for your buck. Legumes like beans and chickpeas are a great place to look. Chickpeas, which are great in a range of vegetarian meals, offer 12.5 milligrams in every cup. Fermented soy products like tempeh are another good source, with 8.8 milligrams per cup. You can also get a lot of iron out of nut and seed products like walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds, which each contain between 1.2 and 4.2 milligrams in every two-tablespoon serving.

If you eat shellfish, you can find plenty of iron there, too. Clams, mussels, oysters and others all offer plenty of iron, along with protein and other nutrients, as well.

More of the supplement type? Look no further than nutritional or brewer's yeast. This product is one of the richest sources of iron you can find.

The moral is, always make sure that you research the foods that you eat, especially if you are looking to gain something specific! The ones that you may have been led to believe are healthy may not be so beneficial after all. By replacing the poor nutrient sources with better ones, you can have a much more nutritious diet and enjoy better health. Don’t worry, Popeye still beats Brutus, he is Popeye after all!


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