It’s clear that we need protein for muscle recovery and growth, along with resistance training to stimulate muscles to grow, but could leafy greens give you an extra edge in building muscle strength and size? It’s an intriguing idea that has science behind it.
According to a new study, adding more greens to your plate could improve how your muscles function. The study looked at data on over 3,759 Australians as part of a larger research study. The data spanned 12 years. If you love green, leafy vegetables, you’ll like the results. The analysis found that people who ate the most leafy greens, rich in nitrates, had lower limb muscles that were 11% stronger than those who ate less. They also had a 4% faster walking speed.
It’s the Nitrates
Why leafy greens? Some leafy greens contain high levels of nitrates, chemicals that convert to nitric oxide, a gas that helps improve blood vessel function. Nitrates do this by expanding arteries that carry oxygenated blood to the muscles. Higher levels of nitric oxide production within a blood vessel are linked with better blood vessel function and a lower risk of blood clots forming. Plus, when arteries open up easier, it lowers blood pressure as there’s less resistance to blood flow.
More blood flow and more oxygen to working muscles also means better exercise performance, right? Studies also show nitrates reduce the amount of oxygen muscles need to do the same amount of work. That’s why adding more greens to your diet can give your muscles a boost.
Plus, leafy greens are rich in other compounds that have health benefits. A rich source of magnesium and potassium, these two minerals play a key role in blood pressure control and are important for heart health. For example, magnesium and potassium affect electrical impulses that affect your heart rate. Leafy greens are an excellent way to get both minerals.
One group of people who have problems with muscle function and exercise tolerance are people with heart failure, a condition where their heart doesn’t pump with enough force to meet the body’s oxygen requirements. Studies show people with heart failure don’t produce enough nitric oxide, so muscles don’t get adequate oxygen delivery. Can nitrates help? In a study, patients with heart failure who drank beetroot juice, naturally rich in nitrates, enjoyed improvements in muscle power and walking speed. Supply your muscles with nitrates from leafy greens has benefits!
Some Leafy Greens May Be More Beneficial than Others
Some leafy greens are a better source of nitrates than others. The best options include spinach, Swiss chard, kale, cabbage, arugula, and beet greens. Plus, beetroot source is a concentrated source of nitrates that blood vessels convert to nitric oxide. Processed meats, like salami and bacon, are cured with nitrates but these aren’t the healthiest way to stimulate nitric oxide production by your blood vessels. Stick to natural sources, like greens.
In studies in rats, consuming more leafy greens improved their fatty acid profiles. Leafy greens contain polyunsaturated fats that studies show are heart-healthy. They also contain a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 and that’s more favorable for heart health since a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio reduces the body’s inflammatory response.
Leafy greens are also an excellent source of fiber. Surprisingly, most people in Western countries only get about half the fiber experts recommend for good health. These recommendations are 25 grams of fiber daily for women and 38 grams each day for men.
The fiber in leafy greens may also help with weight loss. Not only are leafy greens nutrient-dense and low in calories, research shows their fiber helps with satiety. A study found that consuming 14 grams of additional fiber each day for longer than 2 days was linked with a reduction in calorie intake of 10%. If you’re trying to lose weight, fiber and protein are your allies.
The Bottom Line
Eat a balanced diet and include enough protein and calories in your diet to support muscle growth and prevent the loss of strength and muscle mass that comes with aging. But don’t forget to add leafy greens to your plate too. By increasing nitric oxide production by your blood vessels, they help your muscles get more of the oxygen they need to make ATP and to perform their best. Help yourself to several servings since you don’t absorb all of the nitrates from the food you eat. One study found between 11% and 41% enters your body.
Expand your horizons by eating a variety of greens and learn new ways to prepare them, so you’ll never grow tired of them. Most leafy greens are a delicious source of nitrates and supply other nutrients and phytonutrients too. They’re too packed with benefits to leave out of your diet!
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