Nitrates in Food: The Best Fuel for Physical Activity?

Whether you’re training for a marathon or just keeping up with a regular exercise routine, you’ll want performance-enhancing foods. Does the presence of nitrates in food help?

nitrates in food

Research suggests that increased levels of nitrates in food may improve performance in resistance exercise, and beet juice also may be helpful.

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Whether you’re going out for a run or brisk walk or preparing to engage in a tennis match or spirited racquetball, you already know you should avoid sweets, greasy burgers, and junk food in general. Instead, you want performance-enhancing selections that will fuel your body. And nitrates in food, research shows, can serve as important fuel for athletic activity.

In fact, certain natural foods are thought to enhance performance. Beet (or beetroot) juice in particular has increased in popularity among athletes in recent years. Beets are naturally high in nitrate, which can be used in the body to produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels, helping to lower blood pressure. It also may boost oxygen levels in your blood to help skeletal muscles work more efficiently.

Nitrates in Food… and Beet Juice Benefits

In one small study, recreational athletes drank about 17 ounces of beet juice per day for six days and did moderate- and high-intensity cycling. Compared to athletes who drank a placebo beverage, those who drank beet juice had a lower demand for oxygen during moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and could exercise longer at a higher intensity before reaching exhaustion.

Other research suggests that increased levels of nitrates in food may improve performance in resistance exercise, and beet juice also may be helpful for those exercising at high altitudes, since it can help blood vessels relax, enabling them to better deliver oxygen to tired muscles.

On the Other Hand…

There’s a flip side to nitrates in food, however. Nitrates are added to processed meats like sausage and bacon to preserve them and prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. High nitrate intake has been shown to result in increased production of N-nitroso compounds in the body, which contribute to cancer risk.

The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of nitrate, according to the World Health Organization, is 3.65 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg/d). The amount consumed in the cycling study was 4.16 mg/kg/d, which is a bit more than the ADI.

Whether the nitrates in vegetables like beets are as much of a risk as the nitrates in processed meats is still unknown. Further research is needed to determine if safety concerns are justified at doses and usage patterns shown effective for sports performance. In the meantime, moderation is likely best for beet juice.

For further reading, see our post “The Truth About Nitrates in Food: Are Nitrates Bad for You or Actually Healthy?”

By Judith Thalheimer

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