In the back of the produce section, hidden behind sections of beautiful bright, shiny vegetables, in an array of eye-popping Crayola-crayon colors, there’s an unassuming, misshapen dusty-looking vegetable that can catapult your training and support heart and artery health at the same time. Consider beets nature’s perfect sports and heart-friendly food wrapped up in one sweet, though unusual looking, package.
Beets are special because they contain more nitrates than their neighbors in the produce isle, green leafy vegetables including spinach, kale, celery and Swiss crest. When you eat nitrate-rich foods, thebacteria on your tongue convert about 20% of dietary nitrate cto nitrite, which enters the bloodstream where it is converted to a small signaling molecule called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide controls blood flow and many metabolic processes. Increased nitric oxide production causes blood vessels to expand, increasing blood flow to working muscles. Think of your blood vessels like a garden hose. If you can open that hose even wider, more water will flow through it. In terms of blood vessel expansion, “the increase in blood flow improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to active muscles, and the removal of metabolic by-products that can interfere with muscle contraction and have an adverse effect on performance. In addition to improving the delivery of glucose to the muscles through better blood flow, nitric oxide also increases glucose (sugar) uptake by the muscle cell,” states John Ivy, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, College of Education. Bloodglucose is a major source of fuel for working muscles.
But, the benefits of nitric oxide don’t stop there. It also expands airways, making breathing easier. In addition, our cells become more efficient at producing ATP, the fastest source of energy for muscle contraction. Greater ATP production translates to improved speed and explosive power. “Nutrients that we take in through our diet such as carbohydrates and fats are broken down and the energy released from the breakdown of these fuels is used to make ATP in the presences of oxygen. As nitric oxide levels increase, less oxygen is required to produce ATP reducing the oxygen cost of exercise,” says Ivy. And therefore, along with greater ATP production less energy is required to sustain the same level of effort while you are working out. And finally, nitric oxide may improve recovery between training sessions and allow you to exercise at a higher intensity before fatigue sets in.
Go Red for Heart Health
Dietary nitrates from beetroot juice and green leafy vegetables haveother, more profound, benefits for your body aside from affecting your training and sports performance. Consistent intake can help lower blood pressure andimprove blood vessel functioning. Research also shows dietary nitrates may improve artery health by decreasing inflammation, platelets clumping together (a step in the formation of blood clots) and artery stiffness (stiff arteries do not easily expand to accommodate increases in blood flow, which may occur when blood pressure increases). With aging we aren’t able to produce as much nitric oxide, which may make regular consumption of nitrate-rich foods even more important to support nitric oxide levels in the body.
Don’t Confuse Beets with Similar Sounding Compounds
Though beets and therefore beetroot juice, are nitric oxide boosters, you won’t want to confuse them with another nitric oxide booster – l-arginine. Beets and other nitrate-rich vegetables work through the nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway – one that functions when oxygen isn’t as readily available and therefore when you are sucking wind during an Orange Theory class or doing intervals while spinning. L-arginine works through a very different nitric oxide boosting pathway, one that requires the presence of enzymes and oxygen and therefore isn’t effective when you are exercising at a very high intensity.
Beets and other vegetables rich in dietary inorganic nitrate are also not the same as nitrite salts (typically sold over the internet), which can be harmful, even deadly in low doses. Also, organic nitrates and nitrites are totally different than the inorganic nitrates found in beets and green leafy vegetables. Organic nitrates and nitrites are potent vasodilators (substances that open blood vessels) found in the drugs nitroglycerine and amyl nitrite and should only be prescribed and used under the care of a medical doctor.
How Much is Enough?
Research studies show 16 oz. of beetroot juice (equivalent to approximately 300 – 500 mg nitrate) consumed daily, 3 hours before exercise, for a period of several days will effectively increase your body’s production of nitric oxide so you notice a benefit while training. According to a few research studies, single doses of beetroot juice won’t make a dent in your training.
If you are loading up on beets, keep in mind that you need the bacteria in your mouth to convert nitrates to nitrites, the very first step in nitric oxide production. If you use anti-bacterial mouthwash or antibiotics, you’ll kill both bad bacteria and good bacteria and therefore make significantly less nitrite. Of course you shouldn’t stop using a prescribed antibiotic without your physician’s consent but anti-bacterial mouthwash might be optional, talk to your dentist.
Keep in mind that the amount of dietary nitrateintake varies in beets (as well as other vegetables) based on growing conditions including the nitrate content of fertilizer used, the level of nitrate in the water supply, soil conditions, time of year and how the vegetables are stored. “There are commercial products on the market that are made from different vegetables that claim to have high nitrate, but they aren’t. Consumers need to do their homework if they are looking for a commercial source of dietary nitrate,” says Ivy.
Though vegetables rich in nitrates are considered safe for healthy individuals, they may turn your urine and stools red (don’t worry, this is harmless). However, anyone with pre-existing cardiovascular disease should of course tell their cardiologist about any dietary changes they plan to make since certain foods can interact with specific prescription drugs. For instance, while green leafy vegetables are rich in good nutrition and contain nitrates that are important for cardiovascular health, they contain a good amount of vitamin K, a nutrient that can interfere with some blood thinningmedications.
You can’t go wrong by picking up those oddly shaped red, yellow and orange bulb-looking veggies tucked away in back of your produce isle. Beets are a good source of the B vitamin folate and contain more dietary nitrates than any other vegetable. When consumed regularly they may improveyour training and also support cardiovascular health.
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