There’s a good chance you’ve heard that nitrates/nitrites are bad for your health. But some of you may have also heard that they can benefit your performance, so which is it?
Let’s talk about what they are first. Nitrates and nitrites are compounds consisting of nitrogen and oxygen. They are sometimes combined with other nutrients, like sodium or potassium, to create compounds used as preservatives. This is why we often times see them in cured/processed meats. Nitrates and nitrites are also found naturally in foods, primarily vegetables — radishes, beets, carrots, spinach and other leafy greens.
So which is it, good or bad? The answer — it depends!
These compounds can convert into nitrosamines with high heat and the presence of amino acids (i.e. protein). Nitrosamines have been correlated with cancer risk in some animal studies. So if we think about some of the processed meats that would be subjected to high heat — bacon, hot dogs on the grill — these could produce nitrosamines in the body.
The good news, over the past few years the amount of nitrates included in these meats has decreased significantly. They are still present so that they can prevent bacteria growth causing botulism, but a lesser amount to avoid the amount of nitrosamines produced.
What if the nitrates & nitrites aren’t subjected to high heat? To put it simply, they are converted in the body to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts on your blood vessels so that they dilate. The more dilated your vessels are, the better the blood flow! This means that nitrates can help lower blood pressure, as well as increase blood flow to your working muscles.
An increase in blood flow by utilizing nitrates (like beet juice!) has shown to improve sprint performance and endurance performance. As a sports dietitian, I’ve prepped many beet juice shots for athletes as pre-practice or pre-game boosts!
Bottomline, how should you approach nitrates & nitrites in your diet?
- Include plenty of vegetables that have naturally occurring nitrates & nitrites.
- Eat processed/cured meats in moderation! You can also cook bacon at a lower temperature for longer instead of higher heat to prevent some of the nitrosamine production. There are some nitrite-free options for meats as well.
- Try a nitrate supplement as a pre-workout and see how you feel & perform! Beet Elite is a great brand I would recommend trying. Mix with water and take 15-30 minutes before training. If you mix it and let it sit, you will lose some of the effects, so try to mix and consume quickly.