It’s amazing to think that in 1929, Popeye actually knew more than nutritionists about what it takes to build muscle power and function. It’s only recently that researchers published a study in the Journal of Nutrition explaining that a nitrate-rich diet — predominantly from leafy, green vegetables such as spinach — is essential for optimal muscle function.

The study found that over a 12-year period, one cup a day of nitrate-rich foods gave folks 11% stronger lower limb strength compared with folks with the lowest nitrate intake and up to 4% faster walking speed. As they got older, they were better protected from falls too. Psst! Nitrates also help the body produce blood-vessel-relaxing, heart-friendly nitric oxide.

Confused by nitrates, which are sometimes lumped with nitrites as a “bad” additive? Well, when the duo is used as a preservative in processed meats and cheeses, the whole package ups your risk for heart disease and dementia, plus some cancers (from the conversion of nitrates into carcinogenic nitrosamines). But vegetables acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil they grow in, and because they also contain vitamin C, polyphenols and fiber, which inhibit nitrosamine formation, they’re not a worry.

The most nitrate-rich veggies are greens, in order from No. 10 to No. 1: beets, Swiss chard, oak leaf lettuce, beet greens, basil, spring greens like mesclun mix, butter-leaf lettuce, cilantro, rhubarb, and the winner ... arugula (18 times more nitrates than kale). Some fruits, such as watermelon, grape, pears and apples also have a small amount.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus at Cleveland Clinic.

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