A study performed by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago claims to have shown that eating a daily serving of leafy green vegetables will preserve memory and thinking skills as we age.1
This conclusion was based on information gathered from 960 people between the ages of 58 and 99, none of whom were suffering from cognitive decline at the beginning of the study. The participants completed questionnaires about their dietary habits over an average of 4.7 years. They also had their thinking and memory skills tested annually. The tests charted their rate of cognitive decline, and the questionnaires specifically assessed how often they ate half-cup servings of spinach, kale, collards or other greens, or one cup servings of lettuce or salad.
Those who consumed the most ate an average of 1.3 servings per day, and those who had the least ate only 0.1 servings a day. The researchers divided the participants into five levels of leafy green vegetable consumption, and then compared the cognitive test results of those groups.
Over ten years of follow-up, those in the greenest-eating group experienced cognitive decline at a slower rate than those who ate the fewest greens. The difference was the equivalent of being 11 years younger in brain function.1
The health blogs saw this and proclaimed in their headlines that you could prevent Alzheimer’s by eating spinach every day. A casual read of the information above might lead you to agree, but it’s not actually that simple.
By focusing in so tightly on how many greens each participant ate, the researchers missed all of the other health and life choices that these people were making. It’s very likely that those who ate the most servings of kale every week were making a conscious health choice, so they were probably making other choices that also supported their cognitive health.
This isn’t to say that the leafy greens weren’t contributing to their mental function. In fact, everything we eat and do has an impact, so looking exclusively at one input isn’t enough to understand the whole picture. Those people may well have been eating other healthy foods every day, exercising regularly, and caring for their health. The researchers even admit this hole in their research:
“The study results do not prove that eating green, leafy vegetables slows brain aging, but it does show an association…The study cannot rule out other possible reasons for the link.”1
This clear statement undermines the reductionist conclusion that the study is otherwise making. And while it’s certainly good to eat leafy greens every day (more on that later!), this alone will not keep you in good health.
This study is based on the same sort of reductionist thinking that created the nightmare of osteoporosis drugs and osteopenia scare-tactics. By focusing on one detail of the bone remodeling process and ignoring its relationship to the body and how it works, pharmaceutical companies are able to convince doctors (who in turn convince patients) that a quick-fix prescription drug can solve a complex problem without significant drawbacks. Fortunately, Savers know that this is simply not true.
When you adjust one part of a big equation, the whole equation changes. You can’t pretend that changing out a number here or a variable there won’t affect the whole. If the equation is bone health, you’ve got to look at everything: the liver’s work to balance pH, weight-bearing exercise to build bone, the nutrients provided by diett, sleep habits, hydration, production of Vitamin D in the skin from sun exposure, osteoblasts and osteoclasts, the thyroid gland, oxidation levels; and the the list goes on and on…
If the equation is brain health, how many cups of spinach you eat per day is definitely not the only factor. Don’t be fooled by headline-snatching studies.
But Leafy Greens ARE Incredible!
At the same time, the leafy greens lauded by those researchers are certainly deserving of attention. The nutrients in those veggies, such as phylloquinone, lutein, folate, tocopherols, and kaempferol, make sense as mental health boosters and should be paired with other healthy dietary and lifestyle choices.
That’s not all that these greens can do either. Here’s a partial list of their incredible powers:
- Facilitating cell differentiation and maintaining healthy skin and bones with vitamin A precursors
- Boosting the immune system and forming collagen with vitamin C
- Regulating osteoclast production to improve bone remodelling with vitamin K
- Building strong muscles with vitamin E
- Providing calcium, which is, of course, important for bone health as the primary mineral in the bone matrix
- Providing the equally bone-essential mineral magnesium
- Offsetting sodium in the body by supplying potassium
- Building tissue with manganese (including bones!)
- Regulating digestion and managing weight with fiber
Greens such as kale, arugula, spinach or collards contain nutrients your bones need, packed with whole-body health building minerals and vitamins. They should absolutely be a part of a diet that prioritizes the well being of your body and your bones. Here’s a recipe for a delicious, dark green, 100% alkalizing salad to get you started.
1 or more servings (the salad size is up to you, so select the amount of ingredients based on how much you wish to eat)
- Swiss chard or Romaine lettuce
- Red bell peppers
- Pumpkin seeds
- Your favorite pH-balanced dressing
- Chop or shred the kale, lettuce, and chard, celery, tomatoes, asparagus, and peppers, and place in a bowl.
- Add to the greens, slice the avocado, and mix in, or arrange on top.
- Toss with your favorite pH-balanced dressing, and top with the almonds and pumpkin seeds.
If this recipe looks good, then you’ll enjoy the hundreds more like it in Bone Appétit, the Save Institute’s cookbook and meal planner.
Eat Your Way to Stronger Bones!
Discover over 200 mouth-watering bone healthy recipes for breakfast, smoothies, appetizers, soups, salads, vegetarian dishes, fish, and plenty of main courses and even desserts!
It makes eating a bone-building, pH-balanced diet delicious, simple and fun. And it’s not only good for you bones, it’s good for your whole body. You’re not divisible into interchangeable parts, so it’s important that you take care of your whole body, bones included.
Till next time,
1 Martha Clare Morris, Yamin Wang, Lisa L. Barnes, David A. Bennett, Bess Dawson-Hughes, Sarah L. Booth. “Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline.” Neurology. Dec 2017. Web: https://n.neurology.org/content/early/2017/12/20/WNL.0000000000004815
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Please comment on the recent article in the JAMA on the blind Chinese study on the effectiveness of calcium intake on bone health
To expand a bit on the leafy greens article, many of the greens mentioned, notably kale and spinach, are high in oxalic acid, a precursor to calcium oxalate kidney stones, the most common kind. Unintended consequences can derive just as easily from natural substances and herbs as from pharmaceuticals. IMHO, one should either thoroughly educate oneself before undertaking a program or just leave it alone. The old saying from auto racing, in reference to horsepower, “If a little is good, then a lot is better, and too much is just right”, does NOT apply to self-administered health, dietary or fitness programs.
Love your posts. So much clear, accurate information about nutrition, not just for bone health but for health in general.
Here’s a tip from my own experience on this general topic that others may find useful.
I used to eat lots of green leafies (and a host of other veggies, as in, “eat the rainbow”) all mixed together and lightly steamed. But I kept reading on the internet about all the benefits of eating as much as possible raw, so I gradually switched from eating everything steamed to pretty much everything raw in a salad.
The problem for me with that was that raw veggies take up so much more space on my plate that I ended up eating quite a bit less of them overall. And I’m not sure, but maybe my digestive tract just absorbs the nutrients better when the plants are gently cooked, and that difference more than makes up for any nutrients that may be lost as a result of cooking. Over time, eating them mostly raw eventually ended up producing symptoms of folate deficiency, like elevated homocysteine levels.
So I switched back to eating nearly all my veggies gently steamed, with just a generous serving of fresh home-grown sprouts on the side. Everything is back to normal now.
Good morning Vivian,
Thank you very much.
I ‘m very grateful for helping us to achieve to
reverse our bone loss through nutrition, exercises,
Have a wonderful day.
There is an excellent and HIGHLY credible book out now called: The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline by Dale Bredeson MD. The disease does indeed require multiple approaches to halt and reverse it and the diet recommended is very similar to that required for osteoporosis sufferers.