We now know our parents were right — with the latest research showing the importance of eating leafy greens for building muscle and performance
We all grew up with our parents telling us that we needed to eat our green leafy vegetables because they were good for us. As much as we might have fought our parents back then about the nutritional value of eating spinach and cabbage, we now know they were absolutely right — with the latest research showing the importance of leafy greens for building muscle and performance.
Leafy green vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber and nitrates, and packed with almost an entire alphabet’s worth of vitamins, including A, C, and K. Additionally, a number of studies have shown that leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, can improve cognitive function, lower blood pressure, and help treat cardiovascular disease.1-3
All of these attributes make leafy green vegetables an important part of a balanced diet for your patients, particularly as they get older. There is even some new research, published just this year, showing the importance of leafy greens for building muscle strength and performance, which is yet another benefit for your older patients.4-5 These benefits are all the result of the same cellular signaling process within the body. What is this signaling process, and how does it translate into clinical benefits for your patients?
Nitric oxide, nitrates, and leafy green vegetables
Nitric oxide is a type of molecule known as a cell signaler, meaning that it is responsible for transmitting certain signals from one cell to another. In this instance, nitric oxide helps improve vasodilation, or the ability of the blood vessels to expand and allow for better oxygen flow.
Given that leafy green vegetables are known to contain particularly high levels of nitrates, which the body converts into nitric oxide, the benefits of such vegetables for cardiovascular health, blood pressure, cognitive function, and muscle strength are all the result of increased oxygen flow through the blood vessels.1-5
Research on leafy greens for building muscle strength
An article from this past March in the Journal of Nutrition reported on the results of a study examining the effect of eating leafy greens for building muscle with lower limb strength and function, which could prevent falls and fractures.5
The researchers evaluated health data from more than 3,700 subjects over the course of 12 years. Those subjects who ate the most leafy green vegetables had 11% greater lower limb strength, and a 4% faster walking speed, than those subjects who ate the least amount of those types of vegetables.
In looking at physical activity levels, the researchers also found that those participants who ate leafy green vegetables still showed increased muscle strength, even if they did not exercise. Additionally, lettuce, spinach, kale, and beetroot seemed to show the greatest health benefits among all the leafy green vegetables that study subjects consumed.5
Eat your greens or supplement
“Athletes who received nitrate supplements appear to tire slightly more slowly than those who don’t receive the supplement,” according to WebMD. “Adding more nitrate to your diet may help boost your nitric oxide levels and improve your exercise performance.”
Although you may not have been willing to admit it when you were 12, your parents were actually setting you on the path to better health with leafy greens for building muscle, even if they didn’t necessarily know the science behind it.
- Paul V, Ekambaram P. Involvement of nitric oxide in learning & memory processes. Indian Journal of Medical Research. 2011;133(5):471-478.
- Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, et al. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008;51(3):784-790.
- Kapil V, Khambata RS, Robertson A, et al. Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients: A randomized, phase 2, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Hypertension. 2015;65(2):320-327.
- Hoon MW, Johnson NA, Chapman PG, Burke LM. The effect of nitrate supplementation on exercise performance in healthy individuals: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2013 Oct;23(5):522-32.
- Sim M, Blekkenhorst LC, Bondonno NP, et al. Dietary nitrate intake is positively associated with muscle function in men and women independent of physical activity levels. Journal of Nutrition. 2021 Mar 24:nxaa415.