Did Spinach Save Popeye?

(Stress and Digestion)

Carla Hay-Perdue, DNP, APRN, FNP, ANP-BC, NC-BC

Community Education Coordinator/ Family Nurse Practitioner at Palo Pinto General Hospital

January 21, 2022


Popeye! One of my favorite heroes growing up and a parent’s favorite too! According to Wikipedia, Popeye increased the consumption of spinach by 33% between 1931 and 1936. The Spinach growing community Crystal City, Tx, even erected a statue of Popeye because of his positive effects on the spinach industry. Now the premise is that the source of Popeye’s Strength was the green leafy vegetable! 

Is it true? Spinach is a good source of fiber, carbohydrate, protein, vitamin A, Vitamin K, Folic acid, potassium, calcium, sodium, iron, and vitamin C.  

The problem is that Popeye was always in a crisis and highly stressed when he ate it. Our body has evolved a mechanism designed to get us out of danger called the fight or flight response. The chemicals secreted by our sympathetic nervous system, to get us out of a jam, shut down our digestion, so we:

  • Stop secreting saliva – Dry mouth.
  • Stops the muscle movement that propels the food down the esophagus and into the stomach
  • Stops the enzymes and digestive acids. In low acid conditions, the food is not broken down in small particles to be absorbed. 
  • Stops the small intestines from absorbing nutrients
  • Decreases the blood flow to the stomach and small intestine so oxygen and glucose can be delivered to the large muscles;
  • Stimulates the large intestine, creating a lot of action and reaction, flushing out sodium, potassium, and water. Without absorption, you get dehydration.  
  • Upset stomach and diarrhea – Do you reach for the Pepto?     



Take Popeye’s Good friend Wimpy.
Now Wimpy is an intelligent, educated fellow. He is a kind of chunky, low-keyed, relaxed con man. He loves his hamburgers. He will probably die from the cardiovascular disease from the saturated fat and cholesterol he consumes because he actually digests his food! Wimpy enjoys eating.
When Wimpy approaches the café, He begins to smell the aroma of the fantastic hamburgers. The aroma and anticipation stimulate the Vagus nerve. This nerve is an information pathway throughout the body. Activation of this nerve (through relaxation) helps with digestion. The saliva starts to flow. His mouth is watering before the first bite. If he sits quietly and expresses gratitude during his waiting time the vagal nerve is further stimulated. The saliva contains the enzyme amylase that breaks down the carbs in the bread and veggies on his burger. The tongue mashes and moves the food to start breaking it down.

Wimpy chews till the food is liquid in his mouth. The longer he chews the easier time the gut has in processing the particles. He swallows, which stimulates the peristalsis (muscle movement, so the food is propelled down the esophagus and through a valve and into the stomach. The stomach produces stomach acid (A pH of 2-3) to digest the food. It churns the food in the acid and enzymes to break the protein particles down.

The small intestine then coordinates the effort of the liver and pancreas to release bile, enzymes, insulin, and glucagon to break down and absorb proteins, carbs, and fats into the bloodstream. The Vagus nerve stimulates the 22 feet of the small intestine that absorbs the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. This nerve also stimulates the colon to absorb sodium, potassium, and water. The water protects the mucus stomach lining and prevents ulcers from the high stomach acid.

Everything is propelled through the gut, and nutrients are absorbed like they are supposed to. The phrase you are what you eat is not quite right. You are what you absorb. Popeye would have absorbed more nutrients in a relaxed situation.

If Popeye had eaten his spinach with Wimpy in a fun, relaxed atmosphere, he would have absorbed it better and would have been strong to the finish because he ate his spinach. After all – He was Popeye the Sailor Man!! Toot Toot!