As much as we hate to admit it, Mom was right about eating our vegetables — especially spinach. This leafy green truly is a superfood (and we don’t use that term lightly) for its high nutrient content and disease-fighting properties.
But if, somewhere deep down, the kid in you is still digging in your heels at the dinner table, refusing another veggie bite, perhaps a look at the incredible health benefits of spinach could appeal to your grown-up self. And we’d like to think some amazing spinach recipes might tempt your taste buds, too — so we’ve gathered a knockout list below.
Ready to give greens a chance? Here’s why spinach is un-be-leaf-ably healthy.
One cup (30 grams) of raw spinach leaves provides the following nutrition:
Protein: 1 gram
Fat: 0 grams
Carbs: 1 gram
Fiber: 0.66 grams
Calcium: 30 milligrams
Iron: 0.8 milligrams
Magnesium: 24 milligrams
Potassium: 167 milligrams
Folate: 58 micrograms
Vitamin A: 141 micrograms
Vitamin C: 8 milligrams
Vitamin K: 145 micrograms
If it looks like spinach is packed with a heckuva lot of nutrition, it’s because, um, it is. For its light weight and extremely low calorie count, it’s the poster child of nutrient-dense foods.
In terms of macros, this leafy veggie is low in carbs (most of which are from fiber), boasts a smidge of protein, and contains almost no fat. But micronutrients are where spinach really shines; it offers sizable amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, calcium, and folate. For an extra pop of nutrition in smoothies, egg dishes, or casseroles, grab the greens. A little bit will go a long way.
Wanna hear about spinach and disease prevention? Well…how much time you got? Spinach consumption has been linked to reducing the risk of chronic diseases galore.
Here’s why: Phytochemicals in spinach act as antioxidants, reducing inflammation in your cells by cleaning them of damaging free radicals. And since inflammation is a driver of many chronic diseases, it’s no surprise that eating salads on the regular could drive down the risk of cancer, obesity, and high blood sugar.
Then there’s spinach’s effects on heart disease. Nitrates in the friendly green leaves help keep blood vessels dilated, which tames high blood pressure. And when blood pressure comes down, so does risk of heart disease — even with just a cup of spinach per day, according to a large Danish study.
Plus, an older 2009 study linked the galactolipids (not to be confused with Battle Star Galactica) in spinach to the prevention of inflammatory diseases like arthritis. And hot-off-the-press research from 2021 found that eating more spinach ratcheted down the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Da-yum!
You may not take in a ton of fiber from a handful of spinach here or there, but since a single cup contains just 7 calories, you’re in the clear to enjoy the greens in higher quantities — which means higher fiber. Giving your gut plenty of fiber feeds the good bacteria necessary for a healthy microbiome.
In fact, research shows that spinach contains a unique sugar called sulfoquinovose that has a special role to play in your GI tract. Sulfoquinovose promotes the growth of a bacteria called E. rectale — one of the most abundant gut microbes in healthy people.
We may not all be at risk of hemophilia (the condition where blood doesn’t clot normally), but that doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from vitamin K, the nutrient in spinach that helps the body patch itself up after a wound. At 145 micrograms per cup, spinach well exceeds the total daily adequate intake of K for both men and women.
Next time you see a scab forming after an accidental run-in with a kitchen knife, thank vitamin K (and then go toss some spinach on a sandwich for good measure).
Side note: People on blood-thinning meds need to be careful about their vitamin K intake, so if you’re taking one of these, talk to your doc or dietitian about how much spinach you can include in your diet.
You may have heard that spinach has high levels of vitamin A, but here’s another fun fact: It’s also packed with two other vision-boosting antioxidants called lutein and zeaxanthin. (Hard to pronounce, easy to eat.) These compounds are the only carotenoids that accumulate in your retina, where they suppress inflammation.
Bumping up the spinach in your diet might particularly protect your eyes as you get older. One small study found that eating more spinach could help prevent age-related macular degeneration, while another, older study linked higher lutein and zeaxanthin intake to lower incidence of cataracts.
Spinach is also a good source of iron — almost the same amount of beef per serving! If you live with iron-deficiency anemia, snagging a bag of the green stuff makes a good choice as part of a healthy diet.
There is a catch, though: Spinach is also high in oxalates, which can actually prevent absorption of iron. (So don’t depend on a daily salad to supply all your needs.) You can take action to boost absorption, though, by pairing spinach with high-vitamin C foods. Top a bowl of greens with some bell peppers or pop some strawberries in the blender with a spinach smoothie.
(And don’t give up the steak just yet — research suggests the body more easily absorbs iron from meat than from spinach and other plants.)
Lean, Green, Nutrition Machine — Your Action Plan
Fresh spinach is available throughout the year. Your supermarket may feature the savoy, semi-savoy, and/or flat leaf varieties. Savoy has crinkly, curly leaves, semi-savoy is only a little crinkly, and flat-leaf is, as you might expect, flat. Differences in flavor are pretty minor, but some people find savoy’s more bitter bite more palatable when cooked.
For those who want the real, raw deal, make sure to snip the stems and dispose of discolored pieces before washing the spinach thoroughly.
Even with its rich nutritional makeup, spinach has been linked in recent years to both salmonella and E. coli outbreaks. And consumers of raw spinach always run the risk of ingesting pesticides and potentially harmful bacteria.
The only way to be 100% certain those greens are safe to savor? Cooking. Technically, temps above 160°F (70°C) kill E. coli, but it can be tricky to check the temperature of cooked spinach, even with a food thermometer. Rule of thumb: Boil the greens until they’re wilted. This should supply enough heat to wipe out harmful bacteria.
How to add spinach to your recipe roundups
Want to color your world with even more green? Here’s one more easy spinach recipe to try.
Light Spinach Pesto
By Tulika Balagopal
What You’ll Need:
- 2 cups spinach (frozen and thawed)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 teaspoons basil
- 3 teaspoons parsley
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
What to Do:
- Thaw the frozen spinach by placing it in a microwaveable bowl and microwaving it for 2 minutes.
- Transfer the spinach into a blender or food processor, and add the remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth and creamy.
- If the pesto is too thick, a small amount of water may be necessary to thin it out.
- Enjoy served with pasta, on pizza, or even as a dip!
Christensen L. (2009). Galactolipids as potential health promoting compounds in vegetable foods. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20653526/
Bondonno C, et al. (2021). Vegetable nitrate intake, blood pressure and incident cardiovascular disease: Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-021-00747-3
Hanson B, et al. (2021). Sulfoquinovose is a select nutrient of prominent bacteria and a source of hydrogen sulfide in the human gut. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41396-021-00968-0#Abs1
Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. (2021). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron-HealthProfessional/
Mokhtari E, et al. (2021). Spinach consumption and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease among adults: a case-control study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33933019/
Ozawa Y, et al. (2012). Neuroprotective Effects of Lutein in the Retina. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3319923/
Ozawa Y, et al. (2016). Effects of Constant Intake of Lutein-rich Spinach on Macular Pigment Optical Density: a Pilot Study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26950968/
Roberts J, et al. (2016). Functional properties of spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) phytochemicals and bioactives. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27353735/
Vitamin K Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. (2021). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitaminK-HealthProfessional/
Vu H, et al. (2006). Lutein and zeaxanthin and the risk of cataract: the Melbourne visual impairment project. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16936087/
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. (2019). FoodData Central. fdc.nal.usda.gov