Spanakopita (spinach pie), a traditional Greek dish, can help you get healthy! Its main ingredient, spinach, is a superfood! Read on to learn more.
Spanakopita: traditional Greek dish
Spankopita (spinach pie) is a traditional Greek baked dish that’s made with spinach, onions and/or spring onions, feta cheese, and eggs. It’s usually wrapped in extremely thin pastry sheets (filo) and/or sometimes in a thicker dough casing. It’s often baked as small to medium sized triangular individual servings, or cut from whole pan pies.
Many individuals eat spanakopita as an appetizer or main dish. Lenten versions are also made (no cheese). The serving sizes vary and are usually dependent on individual preference. It’s common to find spanakopita pre-made in bakeries all across Greece and ready to purchase, take-out, and eat on the go.
The filo (thin pastry sheets made of oil, flour and water) used in the making of spanakopita seems to be a younger distant cousin of the pastry shell. While the Greek culture can’t lay claim to the invention of the original filo, they seem to be the inventors of the paper thin consistency of today’s filo. In fact, the name “filo” was coined by the Greeks, which means “leaf.” Greeks can also lay claim to the concept of wrapping food in casing composed of flour and water; the original pie crust. The very first pie crusts were filled with meat (kreatopita) and the idea of wrapping savory and sweet foods, was eventually born.
What makes this savory Greek dish so healthy — and possibly the world’s healthiest take-out? Read on to find out.
Spinach: The star of spanakopita
Spinach is considered a superfood and it’s easy to see why. It’s been found to help prevent cancer, improve heart health, prevent diabetes, boost immunity, and improve brain function. The list goes on!
For a leafy green, it’s high in protein. Per cup, cooked spinach has more protein than raw, due to the increased density per serving. Spinach is also high in niacin and zinc, two essential micronutrients necessary for immune, nervous, and reproductive systems to function properly.
Spinach is high in magnesium. While certain preparation methods affect the potency of certain nutrients in the green, magnesium is not one of them. As a result, spinach is one of the best sources of magnesium available through cooked foods.
Alarmingly, most Americans do NOT get the daily recommended amount of magnesium needed for optimal health and prevention of disease. It’s been estimated that 66% of Americans are deficient in this micronutrient. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to a variety of disorders such as, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Additional symptoms of magnesium deficiency include tremors, anxiety, dizziness, fatigue, poor memory, confusion, and even difficulty swallowing!
It’s worth mentioning that a recent study has also linked elevated c-reactive proteins (a blood marker that predicts likelihood of heart attack or stroke) to magnesium deficiency. It’s generally recommended to keep this inflammatory marker as low as possible through diet and lifestyle for optimal cardiovascular health. Another strong reason to add spinach or better yet, spanakopita to your diet!
Spinach, fiber, and butyric acid
Spinach is high in fiber. While overcooking vegetables can result in significant loss of certain nutrients, fiber is not affected.
The benefits of consuming large amounts of fiber are huge. One benefit is the formation of butyric acid.
Butyric acid, or butyrate, is a short-chain fatty acid produced by our gut bacteria from undigested fibers. This production occurs in the large intestine, specifically in the colon.
The colon houses a variety of bacteria — the majority good — and fiber from our diets help to feed these bacteria, which in turn release butyric acid.
Butyrate helps to maintain a healthy intestinal lining, relieve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, prevents loss of intestinal permeability (often acutely evident in ulcerative colitis), and has been linked to lowering the risk of colon cancer. It also lowers blood markers for inflammation, reduces heart attack risk, and alleviates symptoms of diabetes. In addition, “impaired” gut linings amplified by lack of butyric acid have been linked to all sorts of health issues, including fatty liver, heart failure, and autoimmune disorders.
Butyrate’s role doesn’t end in the gut. It’s absorbed into circulation, and has been found to exert effects on the rest of the body as well. Specifically, it’s been found to be potently anti-inflammatory.
Eating a diet high in butyrogenic foods (fiber) such as spinach (and spanakopita!) is one of the easiest and most effortless ways to keep your digestive system AND gut bacteria healthy and happy.
Note: Dairy products, specifically butter and sheep products contain naturally occurring butyric acid. While the levels of acid deplete over time especially during storage, using fresh sheep’s feta and copious amounts of butter when buttering your filo sheets, is an easy and effortless way to add in this necessary, naturally occurring substance.
Spinach, iron and oxalates
Spinach is well-known for its high non-heme iron content (iron from vegetable sources). Cooked spinach has even more iron per cup than raw spinach. The importance of iron is well-documented – it’s main role is to provide life-giving oxygen to organ systems by aiding in red blood cell production.
Raw spinach, however, has the highest levels of a naturally-occurring inhibitor called oxalic acid or oxalate. Oxalic acid naturally binds with minerals, like iron, making these minerals harder for the body to absorb. Overconsumption of oxalic acid containing foods has also been linked to the formation of kidney stones, muscle and joint aches and overall inflammation.
Cooking spinach will reduce the oxalate content by leaching hence, allowing for the more readily available absorption of spinach’s high iron content.
There’s more! Spinach is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), manganese, folate, copper, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C (when eaten raw). It is a very good source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, vitamin B1, and choline.
It’s easy to see why spinach ranks as one of the most nutritionally dense foods available to us, making spanakopita one of the most nutritionally dense Greek foods!
Always use organic spinach when making your spanakopita. 54 pesticide residues have been detected on conventionally grown domestic spinach. Pesticides are highly probable carcinogenic, neural and reproductive toxins, and hormone disruptors. While some of these pesticides are still detected on organic spinach, the amounts are significantly lower and/or non-existent.
Fresh vs. frozen
In a recent study, researchers found that spinach stored at room temperature lost 100 percent of its ascorbic acid in less than four days. Frozen spinach goes through a flash-freezing process that preserves it within hours after it leaves the soil, so it retains more of its vitamin C content. Both forms of spinach retain their high vitamin A content well. Considering that the vitamin C content of spinach is lost during the baking process in spanakopita, it’s safe to say, that both fresh and frozen spinach are adequate for your favorite spanakopita recipe.
The remaining ingredients
It’s obvious to see that the more spinach you can stuff in your homemade spanakopita the better! As for the remaining ingredients, they too, are extremely healthy.
- Onions are a superfood in their own right.
- Greek feta cheese is one of the healthiest cheeses you can consume.
- Whether you use olive oil, butter or both for you filo, when use high quality, because they’re nutritionally dense.
- Pasture-raised organic eggs, are also considered one of nature’s perfect foods. Consider using these.
And while I have yet to find a suitable gluten-free filo recipe and/or gluten-free ready-made filo in the freezer aisle, it seems that the benefits of what’s inside the filo sheets outweighs the negatives of the filo itself.
Time for some spanakopita !
It’s easy to see why Greek spanakopita is quite possibly the world’s healthiest takeout food! Its convenience, nutritional density, and phenomenal taste make it one of the easiest ways to not only improve your diet, but to improve your overall health as well.
*Still hesitant about the gluten in your filo? You can substitute conventional flour when making your filo sheets with a more traditional flour such as einkorn and/or emmer. These flours contain less gluten, are more tolerable for some, AND retain the same consistency once baked.
Want to learn more ways to optimize you’re diet and you’re health? Contact Roula for a free initial session. Start working toward your goals today!
The latest from Roula Marinos Papamihail, CHHC
She trained at Functional Diagnostic Nutrition, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. and holds a Masters in Clinical Psychology from the University of Indianapolis. She’s also the proud mom of 4 little boys. Roula is currently accepting new clients in her office, at home, over the phone, or via Skype. Visit her website at www.myhealthysoma.com.