In the back of the produce section, hidden behind sections of wonderful bright, shiny vegetables, in a range of eye-popping Crayola crayon colors, there’s an unassuming, misshapen dusty-looking vegetable that could immensely improve your training and support heart and artery health at the same time. Consider beetroot as nature’s ideal sports and heart-friendly food wrapped up in one sweet—yet unusual looking—package.
Beets are amazing because they contain more nitrates than their neighbors in the produce section—green leafy vegetables including spinach, kale and celery. When you eat nitrate-rich foods, the bacteria on your tongue convert about 20% of dietary nitrate to nitrite, which goes into the bloodstream where it’s converted to a small signalling molecule known as nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide controls blood flow and lots of metabolic processes. Elevated nitric oxide production causes blood vessels to expand, improving blood flow to working muscles. Consider 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, increased blood flow improves the supply of oxygen and nutrients to active muscles, and the elimination of metabolic by-products that can affect muscle contraction and have an adverse impact on performance.
Beside improving the delivery of glucose to the muscles through better blood flow, nitric oxide also increases glucose (sugar) uptake by the muscle cell. Blood glucose is a large source of fuel for working muscles.
But these are not the only benefits of nitric oxide. In addition, it expands airways, making breathing easier. Moreover, our cells become more efficient at producing ATP, the fastest source of energy for muscle contraction. Increased ATP production leads to improved speed and explosive energy.
Nutrients that we consume through our diet such as carbohydrates and fats are broken down and the energy released from the breakdown of these fuels is necessary to produce ATP in the presences of oxygen. As nitric oxide levels go up, less oxygen is needed to produce ATP, reducing the oxygen cost of exercise. And due to this fact, along with increased ATP production, less energy is needed to sustain the same level of effort while you are working out. And finally, nitric oxide could improve recovery between training sessions and allow you to work out at a higher intensity before fatigue sets in.
RED IMPROVES HEART HEALTH
Dietary nitrates from beetroot juice and green leafy vegetables have other, more profound, benefits for your physique beside improving your training and sports performance. Regular consumption will help lower blood pressure and enhance blood vessel functioning.
Studies also show dietary nitrates can improve artery health by reducing inflammation, platelets clumping together (a step in the formation of blood clots) and artery stiffness (stiff arteries don’t expand easily to accommodate increases in blood flow, which may happen as blood pressure increases).
With aging we can’t produce as much nitric oxide, which can make consistent consumption of nitrate-rich foods even more important to support nitric oxide levels in the body.
BEETS VERSUS L-ARGININE
Even though beets and therefore beetroot juice are nitric oxide boosters, don’t confuse them with another nitric oxide booster—l-arginine. Beets and other nitrate-rich vegetables work through the nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway—one that works when oxygen isn’t as readily available and therefore when you are breathing heavily during a fitness class or doing intervals while spinning.
L-arginine functions through a fairly different nitric oxide boosting pathway, one that needs the presence of enzymes and oxygen and therefore isn’t effective when you’re working out at a very high intensity.
Beets and other vegetables rich in dietary inorganic nitrate are also not the same as nitrite salts (usually offered over the Internet), which can be dangerous, even deadly in low doses. Also, organic nitrates and nitrites are completely different than the inorganic nitrates present in beets and green leafy vegetables. Organic nitrates and nitrites are potent vasodilators (substances that open blood vessels) present in the drugs nitroglycerin and amyl nitrite and should only be prescribed and used under the care of a medical professional.
THE RECOMMENDED DOSE
Research studies show 16 ounces of beetroot juice (equivalent to about 300-500 mg nitrate) drank daily, three hours before workout, for several days will significantly increase your body’s production of nitric oxide so you notice a benefit while exercising.
According to several studies, single doses of beetroot juice won’t make a dent in your training. If you are loading up on beets, remember that the bacteria in your mouth have to convert nitrates to nitrites, the very first step in nitric oxide production. If you use antibacterial mouthwash or antibiotics, you’ll kill both bad bacteria and good bacteria and subsequently make considerably less nitrite.
Of course, you shouldn’t stop taking a prescribed antibiotic without your doctor’s consent, but antibacterial mouthwash is optional, so talk to your dentist.
Remember that the quantity of dietary nitrate intake varies in beets (as well as other vegetables) based on growing conditions, including the nitrate content of fertilizer used, soil conditions, the level of nitrate in the water supply, time of year and how the vegetables are stored.
There are commercial products available on the market that are made from different vegetables that are said to have high nitrate, but they don’t. Consumers have to do their homework if they’re looking for a commercial source of dietary nitrate.
Vegetables rich in nitrates are believed to be safe for healthy individuals, but they may turn your urine and stools red (don’t worry, this is normal). However, individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular disease should always inform their cardiologist about any dietary changes they intend to make, since certain foods can interact with some prescription drugs.
For example, while green leafy vegetables are rich in good nutrition and contain nitrates that are vital for cardiovascular health, they also contain a decent amount of vitamin K, a nutrient that can impact the effect of some blood thinning drugs.
You can’t make a mistake by picking up those oddly shaped red, yellow and orange bulb-looking vegetables tucked away in back of your produce aisle. Beets are a great source of the B vitamin folate and contain more dietary nitrates than any other vegetable. When consumed consistently they may improve your training and also support cardiovascular health.