by Dietitian Ellen
During my career as a dietitian, I often spend time talking with elementary and middle school students. They often ask, “What is the *healthiest* vegetable you can eat?” Their tone screams, “I don’t *really* like vegetables, so if I am going to eat just one, how am I going to get the most bang for my buck?”
I have to be honest, this question initially stumped me. I hadn’t ever thought of one vegetable being the “healthiest” option, and I will say eating a variety of vegetables is going to be most beneficial to your health. However, if I could talk all those students (and adults) into eating one vegetable, I would start with spinach.
Spinach is a nutritional powerhouse. It is extremely nutrient dense, packing fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, bone density building vitamin K, and skin clarifying vitamin A into a 40 calories per 1 cup serving.
In addition to these health benefits, spinach is also a good source of anti-inflammatory agents which are beneficial in regulating inflammation and free radical formation. Taking steps to reduce inflammation is especially important for athletes, because we are creating inflammation in our bodies with every workout. Even if you do not feel sore after a workout, you can assume that some sort of stress has occurred in your body. Otherwise you would not have accomplished anything by doing the workout in the first place.
Spinach also contains vision improving antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, which decrease your risk for macular degeneration and cataracts. The combination of vitamins A and C and other important antioxidants, like magnesium and zinc, make spinach an immune boosting food, which has obvious benefits.
One last health benefit, and then I promise to provide ways to sneak spinach into unsuspecting recipes. Spinach is one of the best sources of plant-based iron. Iron, as we have discussed previously in this series, is very important for fighting fatigue and delivering oxygen throughout the body.
Popeye was definitely on to something when he was eating all of that spinach.
Now, I have a confession to make. As a dietitian I feel like I am breaking a code of ethics by saying this, but…
I don’t *really* enjoy eating spinach.
I mean, it is ok, but it’s not something I wake up in the morning thinking about: “I can’t wait to eat spinach today!” I think it has something to do with the fact that for five years, while running track and cross country at the University of Missouri, I consumed A LOT of spinach every night at dinner. I would start with a plate covered in spinach, and would add my entrée on top. I turned everything into a “spinach salad.” You see, I struggled with low iron levels and because I wasn’t crazy about taking an iron supplement, I needed iron in my diet all.the.time.
Pizza and spinach, chicken cordon bleu and spinach, spinach on my sandwiches, Mexican and spinach, LOTS of spinach in my stir fry and pasta, and mixed berries and spinach for dessert. I know. It was a lot of spinach, but it seemed to do the trick. To this day, I continue to eat plenty of spinach, but have found some different ways to sneak it in. Here are a few of my favorites:
Ellen’s Spinach Smoothie
1 cup Blue Diamond Almond Breeze unsweetened vanilla almond milk
4 ounces vanilla or plain Chobani Greek yogurt
1-2 tablespoons natural peanut butter
1 frozen banana*
2 cups fresh spinach
1 tablespoon chia seed
Blend well until the spinach is completely broken down and no chunks are visible. Pour and enjoy!
* I recommend peeling the banana and putting it in a baggie before placing it in the freezer. No one wants to deal with peeling a frozen banana, believe me.
This smoothie is great any time of day, but I particularly enjoy it after a long run or workout. The carbohydrate and protein combination along with the almond milk for hydration is a perfect recovery treat. The smoothie will appear green, but I promise you will not taste the spinach. The peanut butter and banana flavor comes through. If you want to get really crazy, use chocolate almond milk instead, or add chocolate milk flavored Healthy 100% Whey protein powder. Then it really does taste like dessert. If you are trying to cut back on calories, use PB2 powdered peanut butter instead of the actual peanut butter. You will save 150-300 calories!
Pasta Sauce with Spinach
Spinach can always be added to pasta sauce when making various pasta dishes. Feel free to add plenty, as the spinach will cook down, and you won’t even notice it. I particularly enjoy adding spinach to my traditional lasagna recipe. I add spinach to my red sauce, and then also alternate layers of fresh spinach throughout the layering process.
Here is a great Greek yogurt and spinach dip which is a great recipe for entertaining, or if you prefer a little pizazz with your fresh vegetables:
Very Veggie Dip
1 (10 oz) package Woodstock Farms® organic frozen cut spinach, thawed
1 (17 oz) container Fage 0% plain Greek yogurt
1 package Frontier Simply Organic French Onion dip mix
Variety of cut-up vegetables, Stacey’s pita chips, veggie straws
1. Place thawed spinach in a dish towel and squeeze out remaining water. Continue process until spinach is dry.
2. Mix spinach with yogurt and soup mix until well blended.
3. Serve with a variety of fresh cut-up vegetables or Stacey’s pita chips
Yield: 2.5 cups, Serves 20 (2 tbsp each)
Nutrition information per serving: Calories: 20, Carbohydrate: 2 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Dietary Fiber: 1 g, Fat: 0 g, Protein: 3 g, Saturated Fat: 0 g, Sodium: 97 mg, Sugar: 1 g
Un-Egg Casserole in a Skillet: One of my favorite ways to add spinach to my day is in my eggs. This recipe is an example of how easy it can be to add a hefty serving of spinach to eggs. It is simple to scramble eggs and add fresh spinach while the eggs are cooking, as well.
If you have a juicer, this recipe is also a great way to sneak in a healthy serving of vegetables:
Spinach Apple Juice
3 large handfuls spinach
¼ of a lemon (with peel)
1 green apple
Juice and enjoy!
As much as I made it seem like I despise spinach in its typical salad form, it isn’t necessarily true. Here are a couple delicious spinach salad recipes:
Spinach, Quinoa, and Pear Salad: You will impress your loved ones or guests with this recipe. It appears fancy, but actually is very easy to prepare. Especially now that you know how to prepare quinoa.
Spinach Fruit Salad: This recipe is delicious in the summertime or any time of year! A light and fresh combination of spinach, mandarin oranges, glazed walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette provides something for everyone’s taste buds. There is a phenomenal dressing from Bolthouse Farms called Raspberry Merlot that pairs well with spinach and fruit salad. Check it out in the produce section at your local Hy-Vee or grocery store.
Remember to add spinach to your grocery list! You do not want to miss out on its plentiful nutritious benefits!
What are some of your favorite ways to enjoy spinach? Feel free to share them as a comment.
Ellen Ries, RD, LD
Read Dietitian Ellen’s introduction to this series: Super Foods for Athletes. Watch our blog every Friday for additional articles!