The Plant-Based Food Group That Helps Support Muscle Strength, Study Finds

mbg SEO Editor By Eliza Sullivan
mbg SEO Editor
Eliza Sullivan is an SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
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When it comes to the foods we eat to support strong muscles, the first thing that comes to mind is likely protein, protein, and more protein—but other healthy foods are, in fact, crucial to our muscle strength, too. According to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition today, diets rich in green leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and kale support significantly better muscle function, especially in the legs.

Why leafy greens might be the ultimate superfood.

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Packing our diet with leafy greens isn't anything new to us. Kale alone provides benefits like promoting healthy digestion, providing nutrients like iron and vitamin K, and supporting liver health, while spinach is actually an even better source of iron, magnesium, and folate than its trendy sibling.

But in the case of this study, it's a different compound that may be linked to supporting lower-body muscle function: nitrates. "Our study has shown that diets high in nitrate-rich vegetables may bolster your muscle strength independently of any physical activity," explains lead researcher Marc Sim, Ph.D., from Edith Cowan University's Institute for Nutrition Research. Other than those classic greens, the researchers noted that beets can be a key source of healthy dietary nitrates.

Specifically, in their survey data from 3,759 Australians who participated in the 12-year study, those who had the highest intakes of dietary nitrates overall had 11% stronger lower limbs than those with the lowest nitrate intake—but it's important to note those findings are likely not based solely on diet.

Sim further explains, "To optimize muscle function, we propose that a balanced diet rich in green leafy vegetables in combination with regular exercise, including weight training, is ideal."

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The importance of whole food interventions.

While we're well versed in the fact that leafy greens are some of the most important foods we can eat, that doesn't mean people always eat them enough. According to this study, "Less than one in ten Australians eat the recommended five to six servings of vegetables per day," said Sim, and the numbers aren't much better in other countries.

As a remedy, he strongly advises adding a wide variety of vegetables to your diet, including at least one serving of a nitrate-rich leafy greens. "Green leafy vegetables provide a whole range of essential vitamins and minerals critical for health."

For a surefire way to get these crucial veggies into your day, you can start your morning with a green smoothie or turn to an easy green juice for an afternoon pick-me-up instead of a cup of coffee—you may be surprised to find it just as energizing.

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