Nitrates are not the same as dangerous nitrites, which are found in cured meats such as bacon and hot dogs. Rather, nitrates are naturally found in vegetables. When you eat nitrates, your body converts them to nitrites, but because vegetables have antioxidants, the nitrites are not dangerous. Your body also turns nitrates into nitric oxide, which is a gas that is constantly being produced by the amino acid L-arginine inside of your cells.
Nitric oxide is important to your health because it supports endothelial function and protects your mitochondria from damage. It also helps relax and widen your blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow through.
Having a healthy circulation is important for proper health because your blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your organs, heart, and brain. It also nourishes your immune system and muscles while helping your heart beat and gets rid of waste and carbon dioxide.
Eating a diet high in nitrate is a natural way to treat high blood pressure and protect people who are at risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, raw beets, which are rich in nitrates, can lower blood pressure by up to five points within a few hours.
Studies have also shown that drinking a glass of beet juice can reduce one’s systolic blood pressure more than most prescribed blood pressure medications.
Foods That Contain the Most Nitrates
Leafy greens are the most nitrate-rich foods, however, there are many other foods that contain a healthy and advantageous amount of nitrates. Beets, a root vegetable, are clearly known for being high in nitrates, however, leafy greens have even more nitrates per serving. Here are the top 10 foods containing the most nitrates:
- Arugula (480 mg of nitrates per 100 grams)
- Rhubarb (281 mg)
- Cilantro (247 mg)
- Butter leaf lettuce (200 mg)
- Spring greens such as mesclun mix (188 mg)
- Basil (183 mg)
- Beet Greens (177 mg)
- Oak leaf lettuce (155 mg)
- Swiss chard (151 mg)
- Red beets (110 mg)
Some other foods high in nitrates include:
- Bok choy
- Mustard greens
- Chinese cabbage
- Winter melon
- Protection Against Heart Disease
Studies have confirmed the results of past research that shows that the more fruits and vegetables you eat, your risk of heart disease decreases. Leafy greens are known to be the most protective, likely due to their NO-boosting nitrates.
In one example, almost 1,230 Australian seniors without heart disease or diabetes were tracked for 15 years. They took a food-frequency questionnaire to evaluate what they ate and their nitrate intake was calculated with a comprehensive food database. Just as predicted, there was an inverse relationship between the amount of vegetable nitrates each person consumed and their risk for both heart disease and overall mortality.
These findings were independent of lifestyle and heart disease risk factors and supported the idea that nitrate-rich vegetables can reduce the risk of age-related heart disease mortality.
Leafy Greens for Athletes
Some competitive athletes choose to take nitrate supplements to boost their sports performance, but it is also possible to get the same benefits using whole foods. Research shows raw beets, for example, can help to increase exercise stamina by as much as 16% due to its NO.
In one study, nine patients who were diagnosed with heart failure and had loss of muscle strength benefitted almost instantaneously from drinking beet juice with an increase in their muscle capacity by around 13%.
However, it is important to avoid using mouthwashes or chewing gum because they both prevent the body from being able to convert NO. This is because nitrate is converted into nitrite by saliva and friendly bacteria, which is then converted into NO throughout the body.
Exercise can also help to boost NO production, so athletes are able to get double the benefit by doing their exercise and eating leafy greens.
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