What are dietary nitrates?

What are nitrates?

Dietary nitrates are compounds – made when nitrogen atoms and oxygen atoms combine. The main compound is nitric oxide, but the term also includes other naturally occurring chemical compounds, like potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite.

There is an incredibly broad range of nitrates and nitrites (their evil cousin). We get them from a whole host of different foods, and for that reason what we’ve known about their impact on our bodies has been, at best, a little cloudy. And at worst, just wrong.

To try and get a handle on this, and therefore fully understand what nitrates are, let’s take a look at what they do.

What do nitrates do inside our body?

When we consume foods that contain nitrates, one of two things will happen:

They are converted into nitric oxide

When we eat certain foods, high in nitrates, they are passed from our stomach into our bloodstream, and here it will be converted into nitric oxide. This is good news – we need a decent amount of nitric oxide production to smooth the lining of our blood vessels, and therefore improve blood flow. It also acts as a signalling molecule, transferring information between cells which helps us with immunity and blood sugar control.

They form nitrosamines

Certain nitrates, you know who you are, are more likely to cause trouble (difficult not to sound like a headteacher writing that sentence, so I thought I’d lean into it). They react with amino acids found in protein (bad influences) and form nitrosamines.

These are bad news, as they potentially carcinogenic and can cause some cancers. Consuming too many of these types of nitrates is bad for us.

What can nitrates do for us?

Strictly speaking, we don’t need nitrates. Even the good ones. However, they can offer some significant health benefits, so it’s a good idea to get plenty in your diet.

The main way in which they help us is with our heart health. We touched on it in the previous section, but when nitrates form nitric oxide, it dilates blood vessels, which in turn helps to lower blood pressure levels. If we reduce blood pressure and improve circulation, which takes the strain off our heart, which means we have smaller heart disease risk.

The development from recent studies about nitrates is that they can also improve exercise performance. It makes sense – better blood flow means more oxygen can get around your body and to your muscles, taking with it nutrients that can be used to produce energy. This study testing nitrate supplements concluded that “dietary nitrate supplementation appears to represent a promising new approach for enhancing aspects of the physiological response to exercise, such as muscle efficiency and oxygenation, which might augment performance”.

More research is required to determine the best amounts to get for optimal performance, but the signs are there – more nitrates equals better performance.

Which foods have high natural nitrate content?

We have some good news – there are plenty of foods that are high in nitrates, and it’s pretty easy to work out which ones are going to provide you with ‘good’ nitrates, creating some lovely nitric oxide, and which ones are going to give you the bad stuff. In fact, without knowing anything else, we think you already know the answers, as it seems to follow the dietary common sense that we all have ingrained within us. The main two categories for foods with high nitrate content are:

Natural nitrates – leafy greens, beetroot, carrots, and Processed meat – bacon, deli meats, cured meats

Which do you think are the ones that are better for us…?!

Yes, it’s the naturally occurring nitrates in foods like spinach, kale, bok choi and lettuce. These leafy green vegetables often bring with them a host of other antioxidants, which all adds to the health benefits. Beetroot is a great source of nitrates too. Citrus fruits can also help – they are high in vitamin c, which in turn improves your body’s ability to absorb nitric oxide.

On the other side of the coin, we have processed meats. These have ‘bad’ nitrates and nitrites, which are artificially added to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, which is a good thing, but they also contain that amino acid that we mentioned earlier, which causes problems. On top of that, you have other health concerns with these kinds of products – the high fat and salt content, plus they will probably have other additives. All of these are known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

How to boost nitric oxide levels easily

Okay, so it’s no great surprise that salads are better for you than hot dogs, but we are learning more and more about the huge range of benefits, and physical improvements from eating foods with high nitrate content. Eating processed meats isn’t great for you, but in moderation, they can be part of a healthy diet – even for elite athletes. The key is to get as many of those ‘good’ nitrates into your body as well.

So what’s the best way to do that? Obviously there are salads, packed with those leafy greens. Add them into sandwiches or stir fries, serve them up as a side dish with your dinner. Have a glass of beetroot juice – an acquired taste, but a great way to get more nitrates.

Our favourite way is with a smoothie. Spinach and kale work fantastically well in a smoothie, and remember earlier when we said that these food work great with citrus fruit? Well a smoothie is the perfect way to get all of that in one delicious glass.

Try our ‘Spinach To Win It‘ or ‘Doctor Beet‘ smoothies – packed full of nitrates and vitamin c, AND delicious flavour. Naturally occurring nitrates never tasted so good!



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