Eating just one cup of leafy green vegetables a day is enough to improve and build muscle strength, according to a new study. The findings were published in the recent issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

Researchers from Australia’s Edith Cowan University (ECU) looked at twelve years of health data on more than 3,700 participants in Melbourne's Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute AusDiab study.

Improved Muscle Strength

According to the researchers, nitrate-rich leafy greens including spinach, kale, chard, and a range of lettuces, were linked with increased muscular performance. Those who consumed the highest levels of nitrates daily showed 11 percent more leg strength compared to those who consumed the least. The frequent greens eaters also walked faster than those who didn’t eat as many greens — as much as four percent faster than the low-consumption group.

Lead researcher, Dr. Marc Sim from ECU's Institute for Nutrition Research says the findings underscore the benefits of eating leafy green vegetables every day.

"Our study has shown that diets high in nitrate-rich vegetables may bolster your muscle strength independently of any physical activity," he said.

"Nevertheless, 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."

The Many Benefits of Leafy Greens

Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods, particularly leafy greens, has been connected to a number of health benefits. The USDA recommends at least three one-cup servings of dark leafy greens a week, but a growing body of research points to the benefits of eating more than the recommended minimum.

A 2010 study found that a one-and-a-half cup serving of leafy greens a day decreased the risk of type two diabetes by 14 percent.

The new research also points to the connection between vegetables and cardiovascular health. ECU researchers recently looked at the benefits of cruciferous vegetables and blood vessel health in this study.

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Another study, in 2017, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, looked at seven decades-worth of data on health and diet. That research found a strong correlation between leafy greens consumption and improved and lasting health.

In that research, ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day is the sweet spot. The USDA recommends between five and 13 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day.

“Any fewer gives you less protection from disease and premature death,” says Food Revolution Network CEO Ocean Robbins. “People who reached the magic number of 10 had a 31% lower chance of dying, throughout the studies, than those who ate little or none.”

The research's findings, according to Robbins, nets out to preventing seven million early deaths a year.

“And we’d not only live longer but would have a greatly increased quality of life, too,” he says.

There’s other research connecting longevity and diet. Recent research points to the benefits of a plant-based diet on gut health, which was linked to a longer life. It found biomarkers of diverse gut microbiomes in healthy people over the ages of 80, which was indicative of a diet rich in plant-based foods.

Reprogram Your Diet to Eat More Greens

The problem, of course, is far too many people prefer eating chips and pizza to vegetables. There’s research into why that happens, too — processed foods are more likely to trigger addictive responses than healthy foods.

But you can reprogram your preferences. Diet apps like Noom can help with this. But the simplest way to make eating healthy may just be to keep doing it.

“[If] you are trying to figure out how to eat more vegetables, and you don’t really care for them, your best strategy is just to keep eating them,” says Robbins. “That may sound like a double bind — in order to love vegetables, you have to eat vegetables you don’t love — but in practice, it’s quite doable. And change can happen pretty rapidly.”

There’s data to back this up. Studies have found that early and frequent exposure to healthy foods — even when in the womb — can make healthy foods more palatable for children, even if the mother stopped consuming those foods while breastfeeding. This study found repeated exposure was more successful in acclimating children to healthier foods than the promise of a reward like ice cream for eating healthier options first.

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Greens and Bone Health

Dr. Sim’s research also points to the necessity of strong muscle function in preventing falls and bone fractures, particularly in aging populations. There’s another benefit there, too. Calcium-rich leafy greens may also help with the prevention of osteoporosis.

While milk is often touted as a necessity for bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis, leafy green vegetables like kale contain more calcium per serving than whole milk. (Kale’s 250mg to dairy 110mg per 100g serving.)

“Although many people think of calcium in the diet as good protection for their bones, this is not at all the whole story,” according to the  Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). “In fact, in a 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 women, those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk. Similarly, a 1994 study of elderly men and women in Sydney, Australia, showed that higher dairy product consumption was associated with increased fracture risk. Those with the highest dairy product consumption had approximately double the risk of hip fracture compared to those with the lowest consumption,” the group notes.

“The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes, or ‘greens and beans’ for short,” says PCRM. “Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and other greens are loaded with highly absorbable calcium and a host of other healthful nutrients.”

"We should be eating a variety of vegetables every day, with at least one of those serves being leafy greens to gain a range of positive health benefits for the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system,” says Dr. Sim.

"It's also better to eat nitrate-rich vegetables as part of a healthy diet rather than taking supplements. Green leafy vegetables provide a whole range of essential vitamins and minerals critical for health."

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