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The problem with spinach (it can be both good AND bad)

should everyone eat spinach?By: Cat Ebeling 
Co-author of the best-sellers:  The Fat Burning KitchenThe Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix

Why Some People Should Avoid Eating Spinach

I may be giving away my age, but when I grew up, Popeye was a popular cartoon hero, and he ate spinach to get strong muscles. We were always urged to “eat your spinach, and be like Popeye”.

Unfortunately, the spinach that was primarily available back then was the nasty, cooked to death kind that came in a can. It wasn’t until my family started growing spinach in our own garden that I learned to love it’s tender, sweet, fresh-picked leaves in a salad or lightly stir fried with lemon and butter. It’s tender texture and mild taste make it a favorite addition to smoothies, soups, and stir-fries. According to the USDA, Americans consume nearly 2½ pounds of spinach per year per capita these days.

Spinach is a nutrient-dense, dark green leafy vegetable, high in niacin, and other B vitamins, vitamins A, C, E, K, packed with calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese. Spinach also contains some serious antioxidants that fight free radicals that damage the cells in your body, helping prevent cancer, chronic diseases, aging and other serious health issues. The folate it contains, an essential B vitamin, is especially vital for pregnant women and their fetuses, and also protects your cardiovascular system, paired with magnesium that helps essentially every bodily function, as well as maintaining a healthy blood pressure level. Spinach is also excellent brain food, improving memory and mental clarity.

Spinach comes from the same family as beets and swiss chard. These superfoods are known for reducing inflammation and slowing the aging process, so it’s no wonder spinach seems to be such a superstar!

Spinach’s high antioxidant content, which includes beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, help fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Spinach protects immunity by lowering inflammatory responses, reducing cell damage, and aiding in digestive health too.

Also worth noting, spinach contains a type of healthy natural steroid that increases sugar/glucose metabolism and helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Obviously this is especially beneficial with people with pre-diabetes or diabetes, since it helps to eliminate the need for insulin.

is spinach healthy?So yes, spinach does have some very amazing health benefits, but it can also have a few downsides too.

Although spinach contains high levels of iron and calcium, these nutrients are somewhat difficult to absorb from spinach. And even though there is lots of calcium, it is virtually unusable in our bodies, as spinach contains one of the least bioavailable forms of calcium.

This is partly because spinach contains substances that inhibit certain nutrients from being properly absorbed.  Spinach also contains a substance called oxalic acid or oxalates which can bind to calcium and iron in the body and prevent the body from being able to absorb them. Oxalic acid is a natural substance found in several different plant based foods including rhubarb (its leaves contain very high amounts of oxalic acid), chard, and beet greens.

Oxalic acid does bind to some minerals, making them unavailable for the body to absorb. So if you were to eat large quantities of foods containing lots of oxalic acid on a daily basis, you may end up with some nutritional deficiencies over a period of time—but we are talking weeks to months, though, not just a meal or two.

For some people, the high oxalate levels in spinach can also create an increased risk of kidney stones and joint problems.

Oxalates can accumulate in the body, especially the kidneys. When the oxalates combine with calcium, kidney stones can form. Calcium oxalate is responsible for about 80% of kidney stones as a matter of fact. And this is where spinach gets its bad rap.

Oxalates are not recommended for people who have inflammatory diseases including gout, arthritis, and even vulvodynia. These people have a tendency to have a greater uptake of oxalates and calcium. But for most of us, this should not be a problem, as long as you’re not eating spinach every single day.

In fact, gut bacteria, are thought to play an important role in the oxalate absorption, since some types of gut bacteria break down oxalate, especially oxalobacter formigenes, lactobacillus, and bifidobacteria. And other research has shown absorption of oxalates has to do with the combination of foods eaten during a meal. For example, even if your body has difficulty absorbing calcium from spinach, when eaten at the same time as other calcium rich foods, such as milk or cheese, the calcium from other foods is absorbed with no problems.

Cooking spinach was thought to lower the oxalate content, but research shows this does very little to reduce oxalates.

Generally, unhealthy levels of oxalate buildup is an uncommon problem with spinach and other high oxalate foods, so there really is no reason to avoid spinach unless your doctor advises you to, or you have Gout or Arthritis as mentioned above.

Overall, spinach can be a healthy addition to most people’s diets, but just beware not to overdo the quantity so that you’re not getting excessive oxalates on a daily basis.  So go ahead and throw a handful in your smoothies, munch down on a healthy spinach salad for lunch, and maybe even try a creamed spinach with dinner.  But for a lot of people, eating spinach a couple times a week might be better than on a daily basis.

Mike’s notes:  To add onto Catherine’s comments, I will add a little personal experience here too… I discovered about 3 years ago, while I was recovering from an autoimmune Thyroid problem, that my digestive system does NOT like leafy greens, including spinach.  

I discovered this accidentally, because I used to eat a salad with almost every dinner on the side.  However, one night I skipped the salad and just ate meat, a sweet potato, and an avocado… The next morning, I had a “perfect” poop, and in fact, it was a MUCH better poop than what was typical for me at the time.  So I did a little experimenting, and sure enough, every time I would add a leafy greens salad back into my nightly dinner, my digestion would suffer a little, and my poop would be loose the next morning.  So I’d remove the salad from my next dinner, and sure enough, I’d have a “perfect” poop again the next morning.

I’ve discovered through this experimentation that for me personally, my digestive system clearly doesn’t like leafy greens, and my digestion is MUCH better when I avoid them.  I’ve tested this dozens of times in the last 3 years, and every single time, I have poor digestion when I eat greens.  So I simply avoid them now all the time, and my digestion is great now, as long as I also avoid other digestive irritants such as beans, which also seem to not agree with me.

And if you think we “need” leafy greens to get all of our nutrition, this is false… I can get ALL the nutrients and antioxidants I need from root vegetables like carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, as well as fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, and seeds.  There’s nothing “essential” about leafy greens by any means.

By the way, if you were wondering, 3 years ago, I completely healed my autoimmune hyper-thyroid condition in about 6 months with ZERO drugs… I will say that I had to ignore my doctors orders when they diagnosed my Thyroid condition because they wanted to possibly do surgery or put me on thyroid drugs for the rest of my life potentially.

Instead of using harmful pharmaceuticals or surgery for my fairly serious hyperthyroid disorder, I instead attacked the ROOT cause of the problem, which was stress and gut health, and also used herbs to help heal my Thyroid as well.  I did various gut-healing protocols, avoided gut irritants like wheat, beans, and also for me, leafy greens.  And I also started drinking bone broth as a gut healing drink every single day, and it did wonders!  (Interestingly enough, my joints have felt a LOT better since doing daily bone broth too!)

My whole plan worked amazingly well, and my autoimmune hyperthyroid condition was completely gone and back to normal in 6 months, and has never returned in 3 years.  See, you CAN do things the natural way, by getting to the ROOT cause of a health problem instead of just masking the symptoms with side-effect ridden pharmaceuticals.

If you want to read more about similar topics on why you can possibly eat TOO many veggies, read this article.

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References
Axe, Dr. Josh. Spinach Nutrition, Health Benefits and Recipes. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/spinach-nutrition/
Abratt VR and Reid SJ. Oxalate-degrading bacteria of the human gut as probiotics in the management of kidney stone disease. Adv Appl Microbiol. 2010;72:63-87. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2164(10)72003-7.
Mercola, Joseph. What is spinach good for? Retrieved from http://foodfacts.mercola.com/spinach.html
Worlds Healthiest Foods. Spinach. Retrieved from http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=43

About The Watchdog

Mike Geary has been a Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for over 15 years now. He has been studying nutrition and exercise for almost 25 years, ever since being a young teenager. Mike is originally from Pennsylvania, but has fallen in love with mountain life and now resides in the picturesque mountains of Utah. Mike is an avid adventurist and when he’s not spending his time skiing, mountain biking, hiking, or paddleboarding on the lake, he has enjoyed skydiving, whitewater rafting, piloting an Italian fighter plane (seriously), scuba diving, heli-skiing, and traveling all around the world, enjoying learning about different cultures. At the age of 40, Mike now feels healthier, stronger, and more energetic than when he was 20... All because of a healthy lifestyle and great nutrition!

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17 comments

  1. interesting, i also healed my thyroid issue in 6 months with a change in diet and lifestyle – among other dietary changes, i cut out gluten and ensured i got enough sleep. It also never came back in 3 years. At the time the doctors also told me my thyroid will need to be operated on and i will need to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life.. i was horrified so i went away and did some serious researching.. and never went back to that doctor !

    • Good for you Marielou !! I threw my diabetic meds away 1 yr ago and have cured myself of that filthy disease that supposedly is irreversible. I lost 55 lbs and as the lbs were dropping so was my blood pressure and then after being on Prevacid for acid production/heartburn for over 35 years; now I am off of all they’re drugs…YAY 🙂

  2. Medical research put spinach as a vegetable high in nitrates which naturally suppress body nutrients, high nitrates result in blood pooling in the joints resulting in arthritis, high nitrates also suppress the conversion in the body of carotene in the plant to vitamin A in the body. There is no vitamin A in green leafy vegetables only carotene which needs to be converted to A in the liver. To be healthy spinach needs to be lightly cooked or dressed with lemon juice or cider vinegar.

    • I thought that adding a little olive oil
      to the spinach, either cooked spinach or spinach in a salad, would negate the problem associated with oxalic acid. Is my thought not true??
      Pat, Washington DC

  3. This is a GREAT article!!!
    My experience (several years ago) was that I started eating low carb paleo, basically just meat and vegetables with healthy fats. Unfortunately, I gave myself a kidney stone because I was eating large amounts of either spinach, swiss chard or kale nearly every day.

    My digestion suffered terribly and I couldn’t figure out why my uber “healthy” diet was making me feel worse with each passing month. I finally quit the leafy greens and added back dairy in the form of goat milk, goat cheese even goat milk ice-cream. My kidneys, sleep, digestion and metabolism improved and I feel so much better.

    I would love to be able to live on a whole plant food diet, but all beans and legumes cause major digestive distress too. I guess some humans aren’t designed to eat beans and leafy greens.

  4. Mr. Lester Barclay

    YOU FORGOT ZINC dont forget that there might be vegans out there spinach can kale is their only source of zinc..!

    You forgot zinc the greatest mineral of all , the ballencer of all the other minerals .! When ballenced with copper 2 to 1 ratio gives us hemoglobin from iron ! When ballenced with copper zinc gives us nessary hydrochronic acid for digestion , with out which no other mineral or viteman is absorbed threw the digestive track that needs that acid to clean over growth of internal intestinal build up of dead cells ..! AND THAT IN THE USA IS EPIDEMIC IN INTERNAL MEDICEN .!
    ((( B vitamins, vitamins A, C, E, K, packed with calcium, iron, magnesium, packed, potassium, copper, and manganese.)))

    Spinach consumed at each meal a very small portion stops irritable bowel syndrome ..,

  5. What are clean, low ox, alternatives that can be consumed daily as a green? We eat spinach daily (and kids), but I’d like to switch it up for my salad and cassava wrap sandwiches. Thx. Great read!

  6. I thought I was doing a great healthy thing by adding large handfuls of spinach to my smoothies in the morning off and on. I had never experienced kidney stones in my life and all of a sudden found myself with a full blown kidney stone attack. I had no idea what had caused it. Then just a few weeks later while visiting my daughter in another state for a couple month stay I had another bout of it. She had purchased a huge bag of spinach for me to use. I did some research and figured these attacks were possibly caused by all the spinach I had been drinking. I stopped using spinach in my smoothies over 1-1/2 years ago and so far not another kidney stone attack. I will now only eat a little spinach in a salad or sometimes a little cooked creamed, etc spinach.

  7. Thanks for this article! Raw spinach is causing me similar issues, from eating spring mix which is very convenient, but it always has spinach :-(. Traditionally spinach and chard are cooked and the liquid drained, which gets rid of the acid. Note beans and grains have phytic acid, a mineral and protein binder, and should be soaked more than just overnight for beans, 12-24 hr depending on hardness, and rinsed well to reduce phytic acid. Same with grains, but overnight soaking is OK. I’m thinking phytic acid may be one reason for (my) bean intolerance since commercial processing does not soak at all and usually the beans are not rinsed. Could be an issue with grain products as well.

  8. Good article!

  9. I have been off of spinach for some years now because of the IRON in the product. I was diagnosed with having Hemochromatosis (sp?) because of my iron levels being too high. It is an inherited condition. Wonder if anyone else has this problem. I do, however, have a spinach salad every so often.

  10. My opthamologist told me I had to eat many greens daily because I have early Macular Degeneration.
    I have arthritis. Now what do I eat to help stop my MD?

  11. I have arthritis. My opthamologist told me to eat greens daily because I have macular degeneration. Now what can I eat to diminish my MD?

  12. DONATELLA ATZEI-GARRICK

    I had the same problem with autoimmune Thyroid, the doc wanted to pump me up with terrible dangerous medications and he never suggested or asked about my diet.
    I eliminated spinach, kale, and spirulina from my diet and my thyroid went back to normal and I hope will stay like that.
    Vegetable are good for you, but some are good for some people and some for others,
    my advice lower the stress level and check your body reaction to a different kind of food as we all need different things.
    Thank you

  13. Not surprised about Mike’s reaction to the leafy greens for two reasons.

  14. Appreciate Mike’s sharing of his experience. Not surprised about Mike’s reaction to the leafy greens for two reasons.
    (1) Leafy greens are above ground and they need more plant compounds (toxins) for protection from “invaders” as compared to root vegetables which of course are underground.
    (2) “Salad” means the veggies are NOT cooked and many people have problem digesting RAW veggies. When leafy greens are cooked the bowel issues disappear for many people.
    Has Mike done any experiment on COOKED leafy greens? Does he eat the root vegetables after cooking? I am curious. Maybe it has more to do with cooked vs. raw instead of leafy green vs. root??? Does he use enzymes or seaweed when eating beans?

  15. Everything in moderation is the key so it seems …..

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