I would like to think that people initially included spinach in their meals because it not only looked good on the plate (it has a vibrant, deep, dark green colour) but tasted good as well. Even when prepared simply, spinach can taste really amazing. And now that people are beginning to understand more about nutrition and how different foods in their diets impact their health, we can add a few more reasons and validations for why spinach deserves to be a mainstay on the dinner table.
This one is a pretty easy one to justify, spinach is simply good for you. In the same family with the likes of beet, quinoa and it’s close cousin Swiss chard, spinach is characterized by its small, fragile, dark green leaves and thin edible stems. Most of us grew up knowing that dark green leafy vegetables are good for us, every school teacher and doctor has hammered that into our head from when we were little. But why really are they so good for us? And what is it exactly about the dark green part? Is there something in the colour of a vegetable that makes it’s healthier? Well yes actually, the pigment that gives vegetables a green colour, chlorophyll, is manufactured in the plant with the help of iron, therefore a dark green colour in a plant signifies good levels of iron in a plant. So here the logic follows that the darker the leaves, the more chlorophyll there is, the more iron is present. And why exactly must we make such a fuss about iron, you might be wondering? Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin, that’s the stuff that makes your blood red, that’s also the stuff that carries the oxygen all around your body, so it’s pretty important. Spinach, as you can imagine is a really good source of iron, with over six milligrams of iron per cup of spinach. Iron is more naturally absorbed from the meat of course, but vegetables like spinach provide a great alternative for people who don’t or can’t eat meat for whatever reason. So anyone on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet can, by eating more vegetables like spinach, for example, get the same levels of iron as they would from eating meat.
The introduction of spinach into the diet dates back about 2,000 years to ancient Persia and since then through selective cultivation, there are dozens of types of spinach but they can all be classified into three main categories: savoy, which has darker green crinkly leaves similar to those of Swiss chard, is the least commonly eaten raw and is notoriously difficult to clean. Flat-leaf spinach, has as the name suggests, smooth, broad leaves and is a favourite for eating raw. It’s the most common one found in grocers across the Western hemisphere in both the fresh food and processed food sections. The third is semi-Savoy, which is less difficult to clean hybrid though its leaves are similar in texture to that of the Savoy spinach.
By composition, spinach is about 90% water and has less than 25 calories per one hundred grams. It’s absolutely invaluable to people trying to lose or maintain a certain bodyweight because it can be quite filling without putting a dent in your overall calorie count. A lot of us understand that we need to add more vegetables to our diets but unfortunately a lot of these vegetables, carrots I’m looking at you, can be quite dense in carbohydrates. Spinach on the other hand, is one of those vegetables that has all the nutritional goodness without breaking the calorie bank. The bulk of what few carbohydrates are in spinach are made up by fiber, which is quite important for maintaining bowel regularity and preventing constipation. This dark green leaf which is very well known for its ability to dramatically reduce in volume when cooked is truly a green giant when it comes to nutrition. Spinach contains a whole host of nutrients like vitamins B6 and E as well as potassium and magnesium. It is rich in carotenoids which the body can naturally convert into vitamin A, it is also a great source of vitamin C which is great for boosting immunity. Forget about an apple a day, a little spinach in your diet keeps the doctor away. It is also an excellent source of vitamin K1, you can get your necessary daily requirement of this vitamin with only a few leaves of spinach. Vitamin K1 is necessary for blood clotting, and you don’t need to have ever been seriously injured to understand why this is really important. You can also get vitamin B9, a necessary compound for maintaining normal cell function. Vitamin B9 is also known as folic acid, and most people know it as something that is recommended for pregnant women, so next time you visit a pregnant friend, bring them a bunch of spinach instead. Spinach also contains calcium, a necessary nutrient for developing and maintaining healthy bones.
Now you may be wondering, what having all this good stuff does for your body and the answer is, a lot! Nitrates, a compound that is present in large quantities in spinach, may help in preventing high blood pressure and promote overall good heart health. Spinach also has antioxidants, a word that gets thrown around a lot but few know what it actually means for the body. Antioxidants help to fight oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Oxidative stress has been linked to faster aging as well as increased risk of diabetes and cancer. In other studies, certain compounds in spinach have been shown to even help slow down the growth of certain cancerous tumours. The carotenoids found in spinach are thought to protect against cataract formation, and in some studies even reverse some of the damage caused by cataracts. Basically, they’re good for protecting your eyes.
It’s not a giant leap of faith to see why spinach is so good for you and why it has endured and prospered over the years, it is nutritious and has numerous benefits for our body, all while being versatile enough to be included in special requirement, plant-based and vegetarian diets. The countless ways you can prepare it, cooked or raw, mean you’ll never get tired of it, there will always be plenty of ways to keep the presentation fun and fresh. Spinach is a powerhouse vegetable that is not going anywhere anytime soon.