Just 1 cup per day is associated with 11 percent more lower body strength.

Karla Walsh; Reviewed by Jessica Ball, M.S., RD
April 08, 2021
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When we say "muscle-building foods," chances are, your brain probably imagines animal protein-rich items like steak, chicken, eggs, fish...basically the menu that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson might eat while bulking up for a movie.

But new research in The Journal of Nutrition's March 2021 edition suggests that eating 1 cup of nitrate-rich leafy greens each day—including kale, spinach, arugula and lettuce—is linked to 11 percent stronger leg strength.

The body converts these nitrates into nitric oxide, which can help widen blood vessels. The resulting blood flow boost improves oxygen delivery throughout the body, which not only enhances fitness performance but also benefits cognitive and heart health over time.

"Leafy greens are some of the most nutrient-rich, calorie-light foods on the planet—packing a punch with numerous vitamins and minerals," Casey Kelley, MD, a family medicine physician and the founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health, tells Healthline.

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After studying 12 years of health data from nearly 3,800 Australians, Edith Cowan University researchers found that those who ate the most nitrate-loaded leafy greens had 11 percent stronger lower limbs and walked 4 percent faster than those who ate less or no leafy greens (regardless of whether participants in either camps reported regularly exercising). Fennel, radishes, parsley, cabbage and beets are also solid sources of nitrates.

For young or old, muscle strength is a vital part of the overall health puzzle, as it allows us to lift things (say, those hefty bags of groceries), climb stairs, walk and even get in and out of the shower or the bed.

"Muscle maintenance ensures that your entire system is functioning correctly and efficiently. After all, the human is one complete system, not disparate parts operating independently," Kelley adds.

Plus it helps take pressure off the joints, may prevent injuries as well as aid in weight loss or management. Consuming 1 cup of leafy greens per day should deliver all these benefits, the researchers say. This route is a more affordable and beneficial route than supplements since greens come packaged with gut health-boosting qualities and other vitamins and minerals.

Get your greens in these healthy comfort foods loaded with leaves—your muscles, heart, brain and taste buds will be quite pleased, no doubt.