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‘Spinach really does help build muscles’

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What did the media say?

The media reported that chemicals in spinach help to build muscles, like in the famous Popeye cartoons.

What did the research show?

The articles were based on research conducted by US scientists, which looked at the effects of ecdysteroids – chemicals found in plants including spinach – on human skeleton cells and also rats.

They reported that the chemicals, when added to human cells in the laboratory, increased protein growth by 20%. They said similar results were seen using plant extracts high in ecdysteroids – spinach and a member of the basil family. The spinach increased protein growth by 9% and the herb by 15%.

Additionally the authors noted a 24% increase in the grip strength of rats over a four-week period when they were fed a spinach extract. This was even higher than another group given the steroid methandrostenolone.

What did the researchers say?

‘These results support previous findings that ecdysteroids increase muscle strength in vivo and indicate that extracts from both tested plants may stimulate muscle growth and strength,’ said the authors in a paper published online in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

What does this mean for nursing practice?

The research is at a very early stage and the findings have yet to be tested in a trial involving humans. Scientists also estimate that, based on these findings, humans would have to eat around 1kg of spinach every day to see any improvement in their muscle mass.

But Bernadette McWilliams, ward sister and nutrition expert at Ulster Hospital in Northern Ireland, said people should eat spinach for other better established reasons.

‘Eating spinach is linked with lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can also be used in low GI diets because there is no sugar in it,’ she said. The b-carotene it contains is converted into vitamin A, which is important for the health of the eye,’ she added.

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