Why you should eat like Popeye

Why you should eat like Popeye: Iron-heavy diets packed full of spinach and mushrooms cut risk of heart disease by a quarter, study suggests

  • Iron deficiency is linked to about to 10% of all heart disease cases, experts say
  • University of Hamburg scientists followed more than 12,000 men and women 
  • The team monitored iron levels and rates of heart disease over a 13-year-period
  • Patients who lacked iron were around 25% more likely to die from heart disease

Following a ‘popeye diet’ of plenty of green vegetables slashes the risk of heart disease by a quarter, research has found

Following a ‘popeye diet’ of plenty of green vegetables slashes the risk of heart disease by a quarter, research has found.

A study found if people increased their intake of iron-rich foods it could prevent hundreds of thousands of heart disease cases in the UK.

Experts found iron deficiency, affecting around two thirds of middle-aged people, is linked to about to ten per cent of all heart disease cases.

They urged adults to up their intake of foods rich in iron such as red meat, spinach, mushrooms, tofu and lentils to slash the likelihood of heart attacks.

Foods rich in vitamin C such as broccoli, peppers and fruits also help the body absorb iron – a mineral which is vital in making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.

A team at the University of Hamburg followed more than 12,000 men and women, with an average age of 59.

They monitored their iron levels and compared these with rates of heart disease and heart attacks over a 13-year-period.

Blood tests showed that nearly two thirds of the participants had iron deficiency, which can lead to symptoms including tiredness and shortness of breath.

The patients who lacked sufficient iron were around 25 per cent more likely to die from heart disease and 12 per cent more likely to die from any cause.

The study, published by the European Society of Cardiology, concluded that one in ten new cases of heart disease occurring in middle aged adults could be prevented if people boosted their iron levels. It would also prevent around one in 20 deaths from heart disease among people in their fifties and sixties.

Iron deficiency can be tackled through supplementation or through changes to diet, such as eating more spinach or red meat.

Lead author Dr Benedikt Schrage said: ‘The study showed iron deficiency was highly prevalent in this middle aged population, with nearly two thirds having functional iron deficiency.

‘These individuals were more likely to develop heart disease and were also more likely to die during the next 13 years.’

Iron deficiency is the world’s most common nutritional disorder, and can lead to illness and infection as well as heart and lung complications.

Women are particularly vulnerable because of menstruation – especially those with heavy periods.

Over a quarter of 19 to 64 year old females in the UK are eating below the recommended intake of iron.

Heart disease is responsible for around a quarter of all deaths in the UK – killing more than 160,000 each year.

There are about 7.6million people living with a heart or circulatory disease in the UK: 4million men and 3.6million women.

Regina Giblin, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘We already know that iron deficiency for people who have heart and circulatory diseases such as heart failure, can worsen their symptoms, reduce the quality of their lives and increase their mortality risk.

‘Whilst the study shows there is a high prevalence of iron deficiency it does not look into the reasons behind this. 

‘Further research is needed to whether iron deficiency would be classed as a risk factor to developing heart and circulatory diseases and the impact of treating iron deficiency with iron supplements.

‘If you are concerned about your iron status speak to your doctor first. They can give you advice, or may refer you to a registered dietitian.’


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide 

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