Popeye Was on to Something: Iron Clad Nutrition

Popeye the sailor man was onto something when he urged kids to eat iron rich spinach. Just one-half cup cooked spinach delivers 3 mg of iron and more. The National Institutes of Health recommends 8 mg of iron a day for men older than 19 and women older than 51.

| 06 Oct 2023 | 02:02

Remember Popeye the Sailor Man? You know, the guy who was “strong to the ‘finich’, “cause I eats me spinach.”

He first popped up on January 17, 1929, in a daily King Features newspaper comic strip. After that, he starred in comic books, television cartoons, video games, and movies. At the turn of the 21st century TV Guide ranked him number 20 on its “50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time” list.

Popeye’s fondness for iron-rich spinach was smart nutrition. The element is an essential component of two pigmented proteins, hemoglobin (the red in red blood cells) and myoglobin (the red in muscle tissue) that store and then carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body where it powers physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the synthesis of some of your hormones.

To do all this good stuff, the National Institutes of Health recommends 8 mg a day for men older than 19, the same for women older than 51, and an extra 10 mg a day for women who are menstruating and losing iron each month.

The best dietary sources of iron are organ meats such as liver plus red meat, egg yolks, wheat germ and oysters. Each one of these serves up heme iron, the most easily absorbed form of the mineral. Plant foods such as beans, whole grains, some dried fruits, nuts, and seeds have non-heme iron. They also contain substances called phytates which lock iron into compounds really hard to break apart, but eating plant foods with foods such as tomatoes or oranges which are rich in vitamin C makes it easier to get at non-heme iron. Nonetheless, nutritionist Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant Powered Diet says that to get what they need “vegetarians and vegans should consume around 1.8 times the recommended daily value.”

Popeye knew what he was doing. Just one-half cup cooked spinach delivers 3 mg of iron plus approximately 3 grams protein, 4 grams dietary fiber, 100 mg calcium, plus vitamins A, C, K, calcium, and potassium, all for a skinny 23-25 calories–with zero fat. Hate spinach? Try Swiss chard, a member of the spinach family, or collard greens, a cabbage cousin popular in the American South. Both are widely available in your grocery frozen food section and both have numbers that pretty much match spinach.

Or you could buy some beans. Start at the top with white ones: One half cup equals the iron in spinach but doubles the proteins and fiber. From there, it’s a hop skip and culinary jump down the ladder to red kidney beans, lentils, and chickpeas, each of which your food processor can whip into a nifty hummus with a touch of added sesame seeds to up the iron and complement the plant proteins. Finally, for the non-cooks among us, there’s edamame. As Medical News Today notes, these young soybeans harvested before they ripen or harden are perfect for noshing “shelled, in the pod, fresh, or frozen.”

Finally, surprise! Think cookies and candy bars. While individual products may vary, USDA clocks one-ounce (28 gram) of a 70-85% cocoa dark chocolate bar at 3.4 mg iron, a tiny tad less than half the basic adult RDA. And lookie here: Two Pepperidge Farm double dark Milanos deliver 1.3 mg iron, 16 percent of what most adults need each day.

Doncha love it when what tastes good is actually good for you?