Although Popeye’s muscles bulge out as soon as he gulps down a can of spinach, new research has revealed that it may also hold the key to keeping slim.
Researchers have found a compound in the leaves that the cartoon hero used to build his muscles can fool our bodies into feeling full.
It slows down the digestion of fat, tricking our half-empty stomachs into believing they have eaten enough.
Added to fatty foods such as burgers, biscuits and pies, it could stop dieters from experiencing hunger pangs and might help combat obesity.
Scientists from Lund University in Sweden focused on the properties of chloroplasts – the parts of the plant cells used in photosynthesis.
Experiments on rats showed that thylakoids, one of the ingredients of chloroplasts, can slow down the digestion of fat and so dampen appetite. Half the animals were fed a fat-rich diet with added thylakoid, while half ate the same food without supplements.
Those given the supplemented food gained less weight. They also had lower levels of both fat and sugar in their blood – indicating they were in better overall health.
Researcher Rikard Kohnke said the finding could lead to thylakoid supplementation becoming commonplace.
‘The idea is that is should be possible to add the substance to fat-rich products such as pies or cookies,’ he said.
However, dieters will have little to gain from stocking up on spinach in the meantime.
‘If you were to use raw spinach as a source of thylakoids, you would have to eat 1.1lb of spinach a day,’ he said. ‘When we isolate and purify the substance, we only need a few grams.’
The scientists, who hope to start tests on humans soon, are unsure exactly how the compound works.
It is thought it may coat the fat as it lies in our intestines, stopping the enzymes that break it down from working as fast as usual. This leaves us feeling fuller for longer – and stops us from over-eating.
Spinach, which is rich in iron, can also boost brainpower, keeping the mind alert in old age.
It is packed with antioxidants which experts say can block the effects of free radicals – toxins produced by the body that damage cells and can lead to heart disease, cancer and strokes.