Are foods high in nitrates a natural pre-workout supplement?

How foods high in nitrates, such as pure beetroot juice, before a workout, affects athletic performance?

Can foods high in nitrates boost athletic performance? Beetroot juice is the most well-studied nitrate-rich food. In a sense, beetroot is a natural pre-workout food supplement. It seems all vegetables high in nitrates may help athletes.

What are nitrates?

Nitrates are compounds that are naturally present in food.

When we consume foods rich in nitrates, the human body transforms them in nitrites.

Nitrites may be either healthful or harmful:

  • nitric oxide, is the “good” nitrites,
  • nitrosamines, are the “bad” nitrides.

What nitrates are bad for you?

Above all, nitrates from processed meats are pretty bad for you. They turn into carcinogenic compounds. The meat industry adds nitrites in meat to preserve it. Nitrites in meat turn into nitrosamines, powerful carcinogens.

Why nitrites from meat are bad, but they’re good from vegetables? Seems that phytonutrients and antioxidants in plants inhibit nitrosamine formation.

For instance, vitamin C may prevent the formation of the dangerous nitrosamines (3).

Moreover, vitamin C is only abundant in fruits and vegetables. There is no need to consume vitamin C from pills. So many fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C. For instance, lemon, grapefruit, cauliflower, broccoli, and peppers are all high in vitamin C. See the whole list here.

As a rule of thumb, nitrites in plants are good for you. Otherwise, they may turn into carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Why you should avoid meat?

Certainly, processed meat contains nitrates that they’re bad for you. It’s the worst option. Don’t consume cured meat, such as hot dogs, or bacon.

Processed meat contains synthetic nitrates, in order, to preserve it for more.

The American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as carcinogen to humans.

Better avoid consumption of meat, altogether.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cooking of meat causes formation of carcinogenic chemicals, known as HCAs and PAHs. For instance, pan-frying or grilling of beef, pork, fish, or poultry may cause these dangerous compounds.

Remember… Nitrates in meat are bad for you. Cooking of meat also helps the formation of carcinogenic compounds.

Health benefits of foods high in nitrates

On the other hand, plant-based foods high nitrates have linked to many health benefits.

Firstly, due to their ability to increase blood and oxygen delivery to tissues.

Also, scientific data showed that dietary nitrates may protect the human body from imbalances.

Moreover, foods high in nitrates can help on disorders such as stroke, myocardial infarction, or high blood pressure.

Additionally, foods high in nitrates play an important role in physiological activity.

In a study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that foods high in nitrates may help the body supply blood and oxygen to muscles more effectively. Moreover, people who drank pure beetroot juice walked 18% longer. Beetroot juice is very high in nitrates. Therefore, runners could drink it as a pre-work supplement.

Therefore, people with claudication pain (narrowed arteries impairing blood flow to legs) could benefit from pure natural beetroot juice and other foods high in nitrates.

Athletes and active persons, as well. More for later…

Moreover, studies have shown that foods high in nitrates may improve the efficiency of oxygen delivery to muscles. Scientists found that people consumed less oxygen at exercises in low intensity, after consuming foods high in nitrates. Even people who don’t exercise regularly can benefit.

Furthermore, foods rich in nitrates may increase blood flow in the brain. Data has shown that nitrates may protect age-associated dementia and cognitive decline.

Can foods high in nitrates boost athletic performance?

There are so many studies that have been conducted on the effect of nitrates to athletic performance. The results are astonishing…

According to a 2018 study, elite athletes benefited from nitrate intake. The athletes drank a pure beetroot juice before running. Beetroot juice is among the most nitrate-rich foods. Most noteworthy, elite runners increased their time to exhaustion. Only after 2 weeks of consuming beetroot juice.

Another study tried to find out the effect of pure beetroot juice on muscle power. Scientists gave pure beetroot juice to trained cyclists. Data showed that beetroot juice enhanced maximal muscle power. Athletes on sports, that brief explosive actions are needed, may particularly benefit.

Foods rich in nitrates, such as beetroot juice can benefit both endurance exercise performance and muscle power exercise performance.

Another study reports that dietary nitrates, high in green leafy vegetables, can:

  • reduce resting blood pressure,
  • enhance exercise tolerance,
  • reduce the oxygen cost of submaximal exercise, and
  • enhance exercise performance.

Most noteworthy, scientists were amazed from the effect of nitrates especially on the reduction of oxygen cost. It is believed that oxygen cost reduction, during exercise caused, due to improved mitochondrial efficiency. Mitochondria regulate cellular metabolism and produce energy. They are the powerhouses of cells. Foods rich in Coenzyme Q10 helps this function, as well.

Certainly, reduced oxygen cost during exercise means better athletic performance for any athlete.

Moreover, another study underlined the importance of foods high in nitrates, especially for older people. That’s because we lose the ability of producing nitric oxide from nitrates efficiently, as we age.

Furthermore, eating foods containing nitrates, such as green leafy vegetables, we can enhance performance of:

  • endurance exercise, improving muscle efficiency. Because of reducing oxygen cost. Especially of submaximal exercise.
  • muscle power exercise, enhancing skeletal muscle contractile function.

The beneficial effects of nitrates showed by another study on divers. Pure beetroot juice seems to improve the oxygen consumption of breath-hold divers. Scientist measured elevated arterial oxygen saturation after the dive.

Also, another study tried to find out the effect of beets on runners. Athletes ran 5 km. They ran faster when they ate 200 gr of beets. That’s more than 500 mg of nitrates. Above all, the greater difference was during the last 1.1 miles (1.77 km) of the 5-km run. Runners were 5% faster, when consumed the beets.

Most noteworthy, we should consume only plant-based foods high in nitrates. Nitrates from other sources, such as processed meat may have detrimental health effects.

So, if you want a better athletic performance, consume vegetables rich in nitrates.

Certainly, avoid nitrate supplements. They may work, but we don’t know if they are safe. Especially after a long-term use.

Common foods high in nitrates

Foods with the richest nitrate content are green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, lettuce, arugula, radishes, Chinese cabbage, parsley, beetroots and many more. Analytically:

Nitrates
(mg/100 gr)
spinach3-600
lettuce12-550
turnip greens480
arugula (rocket)480
beetroot180-470
radishes420
endive190-340
Bok choy102–309 
celery290
kohlrabi270
carrot22-195
Chinese cabbage42-161
cabbage25-125
mustard greens 116
broccoli44
eggplant25–42
tomato39
potato18
cucumber14
pepper12
onion11
cauliflower8,5
garlic3,5
asparagus3
Foods rich in nitrates.

Therefore, try to consume spinach, lettuce, turnip greens, arugula, whole beetroots or beetroot juice, radishes, endives, bok choy, and celery to boost athletic performance. These foods are natural pre-workout supplements. Nitrates in veggies will help you perform better.

Nitrate content
(mg/100 g) 
Vegetables
Very low, <20 Artichoke, asparagus, broad bean, cauliflower,
cucumber, eggplant, garlic, onion, green bean,
mushroom, pea, pepper, potato, summer squash,
sweet potato, tomato, watermelon 
Low, 20 to <50 Broccoli, carrot, pumpkin, chicory 

Middle, 50 to <100 
Cabbage, dill, turnip, savoy cabbage 
High, 100 to <250 Celeriac, Chinese cabbage, endive, fennel,
kohlrabi, leek, parsley 
Very high, >250 Celery, cress, chervil, lettuce, red beetroot,
spinach, arugula (rocket)
Foods rich in nitrates.

Furthermore, the nitrate content of food varies a lot, depending on varieties, season of harvest, or soil.

For instance, organic vegetables have fewer nitrates, as farmers don’t use nitrogen fertilizers. That’s not a bad thing. Organic vegetables and fruits have more vitamins and minerals.

Sources:

  1. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits.
  2. World Health Organization (WHO): Internationally Peer Reviewed Chemical Safety Information-NITRATE and NITRITE.
  3. International Journal of Molecular Science: Consumption of Nitrate-Rich Beetroot Juice with or without vitamin C Supplementation.