Can Beets Boost Performance? Sport & Health Benefits of Dietary Nitrates
When we see those bitter, dark leafy greens like arugula, swiss chard, and beet greens, we automatically think of them as being good for our health.
But did you know these foods can also help boost performance, particularly in endurance and sprint-type activities like running, cycling and swimming?
What these foods, in addition to certain vegetables like beets, celery, and fennel, all have in common is they contain high amounts of natural chemicals called nitrates.
Nitrates were once thought of as solely toxic compounds due to the connection between added nitrates found in processed meats (deli meats, hot dogs) and increased cancer risk with long-term exposure.
However, new research is emerging showing that natural food sources of nitrates in our diet can benefit both cardiovascular health and sport performance.
What are nitrates?
Nitrates are inorganic chemicals found naturally in soil and water, and in high concentration in certain vegetables, particularly dark, leafy greens.
When we consume dietary nitrates from food sources like arugula, beets, and beet greens, the bacteria in our mouth and stomach convert them into nitrite. When these nitrites hit our small intestine, most of them are converted into nitric oxide (NO), a chemical with various functions in the body.
We can thank the health and exercise benefits to this important molecule. Nitric oxide primarily acts as a vasodilator, meaning it helps blood vessels relax and helps more blood and oxygen to be delivered to muscles. For this reason, nitrates may help prevent hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain and body.
Advantages to Sport Performance
In both supplement and whole food form, nitrates are used to help support improved physical performance, in particular endurance and sprint type performance.
By increasing the body’s circulating amount of nitric oxide, consuming nitrates helps improve the body’s oxygen carrying capacity – aka make work load easier.
How does it do this? Nitric oxide may help our mitochondria (aka the powerhouse of the cell) more efficient. NO may help improve mitochondrial efficiency by reducing the oxygen cost and increasing energy and time to exhaustion. This means it can help the body make better use of oxygen during exercise. This is why nitric oxide levels are actually higher in athletes that train consistently at higher altitudes (where oxygen levels are lower).
Studies have shown that supplementing with nitrates and/or consuming a nitrate rich diet can significantly increase running speed and power output in cycling. Nitrates have also been shown to decrease the rate of cognitive decline and reaction time that occurs during sustained exercise.
You may be familiar with the use of beet juice, and beet extract in supplement form for sport performance benefits. Beet juice in particular can increase the blood concentration of nitric oxide. A recent study showed a 21% increase in nitric oxide levels about 90 minutes after participants consumed ¼ cup of beet juice.
So how do we take advantage of these benefits?
No, this does not mean you need to chow down on a dark leafy green salad or eat a bowl of beets before your next run!
By consuming nitrate rich vegetables on a regular basis, we can automatically increase our circulating stores of nitric oxide.
Best food sources:
beets, beet greens
Include 1-2 servings of these vegetables daily.
What if I don’t want to eat more vegetables?
I always recommend food first. But if you’re not a fan of the above vegetables or want a quick fix, an additional option is to supplement. The best option is to consume beets in a concentrated form (ie. juice, powder or capsule).
The amount shown to have benefit is ~300-500 mg of nitrates taken about 2 hours before exercise.
This would look like:
1 cup of fresh beet juice
1 concentrated shot of beet juice (such as Beet It)
1 serving of beet root powder (amount varies)
Just make sure not to brush your teeth or use mouthwash after consuming beet juice or powder – bacteria in our mouth are the first step to converting nitrates into nitric oxide, and the mouth wash / toothpaste destroys them.
What about nitrates in processed meats?
Of course, these recommendations do not mean you should go out and start consuming more processed meats like deli meats, ham/bacon, sausages, and hot dogs to reap the benefits of nitrates. These foods contain “nitrate salts”, particularly “sodium nitrate” or “potassium nitrate” which have been linked to stomach cancer.
For this reason, its best to choose a naturally derived source such as green vegetables and beet juice. Keep in mind too, the nitrates in vegetables come in a packaging with a whole host of other benefits (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber).
As you can see from today’s article, more reason to eat your vegetables! The evidence continues to be in full support for the sport performance and health benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods.
For further reading on nitrates, check out the article links below.
Until next time,
Edited by Yumi Chow, nutrition student.