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Putting a Positive Spin on Spinach

By Bryan M Stoller, OD

As a young boy I remember watching the cartoon character, Popeye, swallowing spinach like some people guzzle  Coca Cola.  At that time in my life I would have refused to even bring a fork of spinach within arm’s length of my mouth. No matter how much I would have been promised the same strength as that pipe smoking sailor, I would have refused even a nibble.  The only food I liked less was cottage cheese.

Today, my relationship with the dark green, curly leafed plant is much improved.  In fact, you might say we get along quite well.  One of the things I like about late spring is knowing that there is an abundance of fresh spinach not far from my back door. Right about now you should be able to find several sources of locally grown, chemical free, garden spinach.  Whether it’s from the grocery store or the farmer’s market, those tender leaves are calling out and begging to become a salad on your dinner table.

In fact, in the past week my family has had several meals consisting solely of fresh spinach salads.  My favorite combination includes diced hardboiled egg, sprinkles of feta cheese, sliced almonds, a few strawberries (also fresh picked from the garden!) and my wife’s homemade poppy seed dressing.

So what was it that made spinach Popeye’s favorite food?  What I have read is that at the time the muscular character was created in 1929 there was an erroneous piece of nutrition data related to spinach going back for many years. It was thought that spinach contained ten times more iron than it really does.  It has been said that if spinach really contained that much iron, a one half cup serving would have been like eating a paper clip. I think as a youngster I would have rather eaten the paper clip!

While the science behind spinach was inaccurate for many years we now know much more about the nutritional value that these leafy greens provide us.  Even though spinach may not make your biceps pop out like Popeye’s, it is a tremendous source of carotenoid pigments and antioxidants that protect the central visual area of our eyes, called the macula.

The most commonly recognized of these pigments are called lutein (loo’ – teen) and zeaxanthin (zee – uh- zan’ – thin).  Lutein and zeaxanthin work to block high energy blue light that causes damage to the delicate cells in the retina. There are several hundred types of carotenoid pigments in nature, but only these two are found in high quantities in the macula.

Unfortunately, our bodies cannot manufacture these pigments on their own. That is why we need to consume daily amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin in our diets or through nutritional supplementation.  Without appropriate pigmentation in our eyes to combat the damage from the harmful blue light, we become more susceptible to vision destroying conditions like macular degeneration. Most recent studies show that we should consume 10 mg/day of lutein and 2mg/day of zeaxanthin.

So load up on local spinach this week while it is the freshest of the year. If you aren’t so sure about spinach you can substitute kale, turnip greens or even dandelion leaves. Personally, I’m sticking to the spinach. And, who knows? Maybe in the future I might even learn to like cottage cheese.