Popeye: A Parable of Heart Health

Spinach is a “renowned muscle builder” and “the ultimate man food”


You know Popeye the Sailor.  He’s the comic creation of Elzie Crisler Segar.  The Popeye comic strip first appeared in the 1920s, a dietary dark age, when butter, meat and biscuits were considered a wholesome breakfast and top athletes primed themselves for the big game with a pile of chicken-fried steaks.

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Popeye burst upon this ghastly gustatory culture like a seagoing messenger from the 21st century.  With anchors tattooed on either arm, he was well ahead of fashion in the body art department.  But what really put him in the health avant garde was his diet of leafy greens – in particular spinach.

TBE has posted previously on the healthy properties of Spinach and other leafy greens. Men’s Health magazine calls spinach a “renowned muscle builder” and “the ultimate man food”. It’s simply an outstanding heart healthy dish, and Popeye famously ate it right out of the can.  Spinach gave him superhuman strength.  His chest and biceps swelled.  His legs blurred.  He was able to lift entire battleships by the rudder and bang them together like sports clappers.

Less visibly (and not precisely mentioned in any of Popeye’s media incarnations), his cardiovascular system was undoubtedly strengthening from the influx of potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, foliate and the antioxidant leutin; and the fiber in spinach was helping to lower his cholesterol and regulate his digestion.

Popeye was the most democratic of all super-strong fictional characters.  Unlike Superman, Captain Marvel, Achilles or Hercules, Popeye’s potency did not derive from some magical or pseudo-scientific source, but from a simple food, available to all.  And Popeye’s relation to heart healthy diet didn’t begin or end with spinach.  It carried over into his emotional life.

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Being an alpha male (thanks to his healthy diet), Popeye probably had access to glamorous romantic partners like Betty Boop or the future Blondie Bumpstead.  But whom did he choose to pursue?  Olive Oyl.

Popeye’s devotion to this virtual walking advertisement for the Mediterranean diet raises him even further in our estimation.  So does his care for his (or Olive’s – it’s never made clear) infant ward, Swee’ Pea.  For as we know, sweet peas are an excellent source of heart healthy nutrients and fiber.

We don’t quite recall the diet of Popeye’s bad-tempered nemesis Bluto. But we can assume that included lots of sugary drinks, donuts, cheese pizza, alcohol and other mood destabilizing foods.  We can only hope that the many trips to the hospital Bluto made as a result of Popeye’s pummelings, gave him access to knowledgeable health professionals who could also counsel him about his diet and improve his cardiac risk profile.

Rounding out our tour of the Popeye universe, we come to the hapless, passive J. Wellington Wimpy.  From a dietary perspective, Wimpy is Popeye’s true opposite. Whereas the sailor dines mainly on leafy greens, Wimpy’s sole food item is the hamburger: all fatty meat and a starchy bun. An all-hamburger diet has clearly drained Wimpy of physical vitality.  He can barely shuffle around.  He can’t hold a job (always borrowing money).  He probably suffers from erectile dysfunction, and may be building toward heart attack, stroke or other major cardiac event.  Wimpy, like Bluto, would benefit from a visit to a preventive cardiologist, who could help him craft a healthier diet – possibly including tasty veggie burgers or other low-fat alternatives.

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Some may object to our portrait of Popeye as an avatar of 21st century health awareness based on the corncob pipe that is perpetually clenched in his massive jaw.  But we would reply that Popeye’s pipe often points bowl downward, suggesting that it was not often if ever lit, and may have delivered more in the way of oral comfort than nicotine.

Since the 1920s, Popeye has appeared in comic strips, cartoons, and t-shirts. His name been unfortunately attached to a high-fat food franchise (probably the work of Bluto).  And in 1980, he was the subject of a full-length feature film, “Popeye”, directed by Robert Altman.  TBE would like to point out that the role of Popeye in that film was played by Robin Williams – who had successful valve surgery at Cleveland Clinic in 2009!

(In other show-biz news, Richard Fleischer, the director of the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage”, came to Cleveland Clinic in 2000 to speak at a seminar on minimally invasive surgery.  Fleischer is the son and nephew of animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose studios contributed enormously to the Popeye mythos as the producers of Popeye cartoons from the 1930s through the 1960s.)

Popeye’s creator Elzie Crisler Segar should be proud.  While Popeye himself often mumbles, the Popeye universe offers a clearly articulated parable of diet and strength. Like us, Popeye lives in a world where a high cholesterol diet leads to physicial (if not moral) dissolution, and virtue is a plant-based thing.

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