Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Lifting weights and fitting in regular exercise builds muscle – but increasing your strength starts with how you’re fueling your body. What you eat plays just as big of a role as the activities you do. While protein is the go-to nutrient that gets the most attention when you want to create and strengthen muscle, new research is suggesting leafy greens may be just as important.
Here’s what science has to say about the benefits of eating green veggies.
Leafy Greens Make Your Muscles Stronger
A March 2021 study published in The Journal of Nutrition examined the connection between muscles and leafy green vegetables, taking a look at the effect of a veggie-rich diet on strength.
Researchers looked at data from 3,759 Australian participants over a period of 12 years. They discovered that those who ate the largest amount of leafy greens turned out to have increased lower limb strength. Overall, they had 11 percent more strength than those who didn’t eat as many green veggies.
One particular nutrient that’s found in leafy green plants is thought to be the cause of that extra muscle strength. Researchers believe that it’s the nitrates present in these greens that helps the body build extra-capable muscles. When you eat nitrates, your body converts them into nitric oxide. That nitric oxide dilates, or opens up, your blood vessels – and that leads to better blood flow from head to toe.
When nitric oxide is assisting blood flow throughout your body, it also has a positive effect on your exercise performance. It allows you to push yourself harder for longer periods of time, getting in a tougher workout every time you exercise. Nitric oxide can even help you tackle high-intensity exercises, keeping your heart pumping and oxygen flowing right to your muscles.
As the research study’s authors note, your muscles need more oxygen when you’re exercising. Getting the right amount of this critical nutrient – thanks to all the nitrate you’re getting from leafy green vegetables – is exactly what your muscles need to increase in strength.
So, while vegetables may not be packed with protein, they can have surprising benefits for your muscle strength and function. Eating plenty of nitrates can help you enhance your workouts and challenge yourself physically, which in turn can help you build stronger muscles.
Eating Greens Also Increases Your Walking Speed
In addition to giving your muscles a boost, upping your leafy greens intake may also make you faster. Well, faster at walking, that is.
Researchers found that the very same participants who saw an 11 percent increase in their lower limb muscle strength also walked about 4 percent faster than the non-veggie participants. Eating more leafy greens seemed to speed up pace, likely also as the result of the nitrate-led increase in oxygen that’s delivered to the muscles.
However, your walking speed might also increase as a result of a veggie- and nitrate-rich diet alone. Research published in Sports Medicine suggests that, in some cases, nitrates can help increase your performance during and tolerance for exercise. This can help you pick up the pace whether you’re walking or working out.
Easy Ways to Get More Greens
Now that you’ve discovered just how much potential leafy greens hold for your muscles, you can put this scientific knowledge to use. Add more leafy greens to your meals, making foods like kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens and chard the centerpiece of your plate.
While leafy green vegetables of any kind should do the trick, it’s a good idea to aim for balance and variety. Leafy greens can make up at least one of your servings of vegetables each day. You can round out your meals with other types of veggies, along with other nutrient-rich foods that offer protein, fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals.
As you focus on incorporating more greens into your diet, it’s also important to continue exercising regularly. The effects of strength training and building muscle the traditional way can’t be replicated by veggies alone. Fine-tuning the foods you’re eating and your exercises can offer the biggest boost of strength as you build muscle.
From Clean Eating
Liked this article? Join Active Pass and get unlimited access to exclusive articles, sequences, meditations and live experiences—as well as thousands of healthy recipes and meal plans from Clean Eating and Vegetarian Times, plus can’t-miss content from more than 35 other brand like Women’s Running, Backpacker, and Better Nutrition.