The Popeye workout

In 1929 the cartoonist Elzie Crigler Segar created the character “Popeye the sailor” for a cartoon strip called Thimble Theatre. Popeye was an instant hit and soon came to feature in a strip of his own. So popular was he that in 1933 Max and Dave Fleischer created a series of Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures. The Fleischers added a new dimension to Popeye in that he derived superhuman strength from eating spinach. Boosted by spinach Popeye went on to become incredibly popular to the extent that he has featured in many more cartoons and feature films since and the Popeye cartoon strip is still running today. Now a new study suggests that maybe the strength of Popeye lies in the fact that the spinach secret to his strength might be have a base in fact after all.

Popeye has become inextricably linked with the idea of spinach boosting strength. Consumption of spinach is reported to have increased by 33 per cent in the United States between 1933 and 1936 as Popeye gained popularity. In 2010 a study revealed that children increased their vegetable consumption after watching Popeye cartoons. The spinach-growing community of Crystal City, Texas erected a statue of the character in recognition of Popeye’s positive effects on the spinach industry. Of course, there has always been the vague suspicion that while spinach is a very healthy food, its capacity to strengthen muscles may be a bit of poetic license. Apparently the Fleischers based their strength-building idea on either the iron or vitamin A content of spinach. What the new research has found is that neither iron nor vitamin A from spinach yield a strength increase but that the strength enhancing properties of spinach are very real.

Spinach, like its vegetable cousin beetroot, is a very good source of nitrate. Researchers suspected that nitrate may increase muscle strength and so they placed nitrate into the drinking water of a group of mice for seven days and compared their muscle strength to mice in a control group. The amount of nitrate given to the mice was equivalent to a human eating 200 to 300 grams of fresh spinach or two to three beetroots daily.

After the seven days when they tested the strength of the muscles in the legs of the mice, those who had been given nitrate were significantly stronger than the control group. Analysis also showed that the nitrate group had higher concentrations of two different proteins, CASQ1 and DHPR which are used for storing and releasing calcium, a mineral that is necessary for muscles to contract. So the nitrate, at levels equivalent to 200-300 grams of spinach daily, really was making muscles stronger.

No wonder this green leafy vegetable is so pop-eye-ular.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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