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Spring for Spinach: 10 Reasons to Include More in Your Training Diet

By Michele M. Tuttle | March 27, 2017, 6:23 p.m. (ET)

spinach 

Spring is here, and it’s spinach season! Long before kale was promoted as a leafy green superfood, Popeye the Sailor Man was downing cans of spinach for strength. (Note: If the name “Popeye” brings only fried chicken to mind, please Google Popeye the Sailor Man NOW.) Popeye’s secret to strength and vitality was … you got it: spinach. At the time that Popeye was introduced (1929), spinach was famous for its iron content. Popeye ate a can of spinach every time before facing an enemy, allowing him to exhibit super human strength. It was never explained why spinach worked so well for him, but it did. Every time.

Today we know that spinach has numerous benefits for athletes. Literally, it provides vitamins and minerals from A to zinc. Here are 10 reasons why eating spinach on a regular basis might be beneficial for anyone but especially triathletes.

1. Iron. Spinach is a great source of iron: 1/2 cup cooked has 18 percent of Daily Value for iron (see table below). Iron is the key component in hemoglobin, allowing blood to transport oxygen to muscles. Iron deficiency, and particularly sports anemia, is common in triathletes, so including rich sources of iron is a good plan. Hint: eat it cooked and with a source of vitamin C like oranges or tomatoes and you’ll absorb more of the iron.

2. Nitrates. The nitric oxide system is like a hidden source of power for athletes. If you have never heard of this system, you can read about it here. Essentially, nitrates in foods like spinach, arugula and beetroot allow additional oxygen availability when the body is at lactate threshold. It lowers the perceived effort of training, making it possible to train and race harder.

3. Vitamin C. Both cooked and raw spinach provide vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin that is reduced by cooking. Vitamin C is beneficial for the immune system, collagen productive and wound healing.

4. Vitamin A. Both cooked and raw spinach are rich in vitamin A, critically important for immune function, vision and supporting cell growth.

5. Fiber. Both cooked and raw spinach provide about 2 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber helps promote healthy gut bacteria, promotes bowel regularity and increases satiety.

6. Folate. Both cooked and raw spinach provide folate, a cofactor in the synthesis of DNA and RNA, as well as amino acids. It’s also absolutely critical for proper cell division and repair.

7. Lutein, zeaxanthin and many other phytochemicals. Both cooked and raw spinach are rich in compounds critical for the health of the retina. Many phytochemicals are plant pigments that act as powerful antioxidants. They neutralize free radicals in the body preventing cellular damage.

8. Thylakoids. All green plants contain thylakoids, disc-shaped structures within green plant leaves where photosynthesis occurs. In animal studies, thylakoids have been shown to affect appetite hormones, slow down the metabolism of fat and increase satiety. 

9. Vitamin K. Essential part of a vital enzyme involved in blood clotting and bone metabolism. Large amounts are produced by the gut microbiome but are also available in leafy greens.

10. Convenient, tasty and simple to prepare. Fresh spinach is widely available prewashed and ready to use in smoothies, soups, salads or quickly sautéed with garlic and olive oil for a side dish. Frozen spinach works well too and may actually be higher than fresh in some nutrients such as folate due to storage and transit time.

Nutrients in Spinach as % Daily Value

 

Raw Spinach

(3 cups) % DV

Cooked Spinach

(1/2 cup) % DV

Calories

21 calories

21 calories

Iron

13%

18%

Fiber

8%

9%

Vitamin A

169%

188%

Vitamin C

42%

15%

Vitamin K

540%

555%

Folate

44%

33%

Potassium

20%

17%

Calcium

9%

12%

Magnesium

18%

19%

Zinc

3%

4%

*Daily Values are based on 2,000 calories reference diet. If you require more calories, your nutrition needs are higher. For more information on Daily Values, click here.

Quick Spinach Sauté with Garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teapoons minced garlic
6 cups fresh spinach or 2 cups frozen spinach
Dash of salt
Optional: Balsamic vinegar 

Heat a heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add the oil, garlic, salt and spinach. Stir quickly until all the spinach is wilted (about 30 seconds to 1 minute).

Serve immediately with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Makes approximately 1 cup of cooked spinach.

Michele Tuttle, MPH, RD, CSSD, is the principal of 4th Discipline Coaching. She’s a certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD), USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, USMS Masters Swimming Coach (Levels 1 & 2) and an amateur elite triathlete. Her basic philosophy is that food is serious business, meant to be fully enjoyed and prioritized, since it has such tremendous effects on life, sport and health. Follow her on Twitter @IrongirlRD, Instagram @mtuttlerd or email her at mmtcomm@verizon.net. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.