You may have heard that you should go easy on meat products like bacon, lunch meats, and hot dogs because of the dangers of nitrates in food… or was that nitrites?
You may be surprised to learn that nitrates and nitrites aren’t necessarily bad for you.
In fact, vegetables are the biggest dietary source of nitrates in our diet. Not to mention, our own bodies make nitrites. You need nitrates in order to produce nitrites, which then produce nitric oxide.
And nitric oxide is vital to many bodily functions.
So, what’s the deal on these molecules? How should you make sense of the confusion?
Keep reading to learn more about these important compounds.
What Are Nitrates?
What is nitrate and what is the difference between nitrate and nitrite? Are nitrates bad for you?
These are important questions to help you learn what you need to know about nitrates in food.
What are the differences between nitrates and nitrites?
First, let’s take a look at the chemistry of nitrate and nitrite. At a basic level, they are two different but related molecular compounds.
Nitrate is a compound formed by one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms: NO3.
Nitrite is a compound formed by one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms: NO2.
That one oxygen atom makes a big difference!
On their own, nitrates are inert. But when they come in contact with certain bacteria and enzymes, they turn into nitrites.
This is where things get tricky…
Nitrates are found in larger quantities in vegetables, primarily due to nitrogen found in the soil. Plants that are grown in fertilized soil often contain higher amounts of nitrates due to the nitrogen in the fertilizer. Organic vegetables may not contain as much nitrate because synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are not permitted in organic farming. 
Nitrites can either become nitric oxide (NO), which you want, or they can turn into nitrosamines, which you don’t want. Nitrites are often used to prevent cured meat from turning brown; they help it stay red or pink and appealing to customers.
When meat is cooked at high temperatures (such as frying bacon), it creates a health risk because nitrites can lead to nitrosamine formation. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. 
We’ll dig a little deeper below into nitric oxide and foods that contain nitrates.
Benefits of Nitrates
While it’s not a good idea to eat a diet loaded with lots of cold cuts or processed meats or meat cooked at high temperatures, the truth is there are actually several benefits of healthy nitrates and nitrites, including: 
- They function as antimicrobials in the digestive system and help to kill bacterial pathogens like Salmonella.
- Nitrates found in vegetable sources such as beetroots or beet juice can help boost energy levels.
- They convert to nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
And this conversion to nitric oxide, the so-called “miracle molecule,” is one of the most important features of a diet rich in dietary nitrates.
What exactly is nitric oxide? Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule produced by your body. It provides several key functions, the most important being vasodilation, which means it helps your blood vessels relax and dilate. This lowers blood pressure and allows blood to flow more efficiently so that red blood cells can carry nutrients and oxygen throughout your body more easily.
Three things can negatively impact your nitric oxide levels:
As we get older, our bodies produce less nitric oxide. As a result, it’s even more important that we take steps to help keep our NO levels optimal.
Physical exercise helps the body to produce nitric oxide. If you’re not getting enough exercise, your body may not be making enough NO. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise helps boost nitric oxide, which then also helps reduce blood pressure and help with disease prevention. While this is true at any age, it becomes even more important as we age and NO levels decline. So be sure to get some exercise each day, especially cardiovascular exercise. This can be as simple as going for a walk around the block. Or you may want to try running or biking.
The bottom line is that any exercise that gets your heart rate up, your blood moving, and your lungs working will help improve your cardiovascular health. Plus, exercising will help signal to your body that it needs to make nitric oxide. As always, be sure to speak with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. [4, 5]
If your diet is lacking in healthy nitrates and NO-boosters, your nitric oxide levels will likely be lacking. Make sure you are incorporating plenty of healthy nitrate-rich foods like leafy green vegetables, healthy proteins, and foods with lots of antioxidants.
Eating healthy foods that contain a high amount of nitrates is a key way to get the nitric oxide your body needs. You can also take nitric oxide-boosting supplements to help boost your intake.
Read on below for more information on how to get more healthy nitrates in your diet.
How to Get More Nitric Oxide in Your Diet
Eating a varied diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits can help ensure that you are getting the nitrates in foods you need to optimize your body’s production of nitric oxide. Below are some tips on specific foods, antioxidants, and amino acids to be sure you incorporate into your diet. You can even include dark chocolate and red wine—enjoy a little decadence while getting the nutrients your body needs!
10 Foods High in Nitrates
Include these 10 foods that are high in nitrates to boost the nitric oxide in your diet. Be sure to include these to make sure you are getting a good daily intake of healthy nitrates in food: 
- Beets: Because of their high nitrate content, beets also provide many other health benefits including improved mental functioning, better athletic performance, and lowered blood pressure.  Juicing beets provide the best source of these benefits. Cooking or fermenting beets diminishes their ability to help lower blood pressure. 
- Garlic: Garlic’s ability to help boost nitric oxide has shown health benefits such as lowering blood pressure. The benefits are found in fresh garlic rather than cooked garlic. The two best ways to consume garlic for health benefits are to eat it fresh or to take a garlic supplement.
- Meat, poultry, seafood: These foods contain the compound CoQ10, which helps the body maintain levels of nitric oxide. This compound also helps boost athletic performance, prevent migraines, and encourage heart health.
- Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate contains some flavonols, which are compounds that have many health benefits. The flavonols help boost levels of nitric oxide in the body, which in turn helps improve blood flow, brain function, and prevent heart disease. Research has shown that dark chocolate can help improve NO levels and decrease blood pressure. 
- Leafy green vegetables: Loaded with nitrates, leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, arugula, and cabbage convert to nitric oxide, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases. 
- Citrus fruits: These fruits—such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes—are high in vitamin C. Vitamin C boosts your body’s levels of nitric oxide synthase, an enzyme that needed to produce nitric oxide, plus it helps boost your body’s levels of nitric oxide. These vitamin C-rich fruits have been linked to lowered blood pressure, lowered risk of heart disease, and improvement in cognitive function.
- Pomegranate: Pomegranates contain lots of antioxidants and help the body to both produce and maintain levels of nitric oxide. Studies have shown that pomegranate can help improve blood flow  and protect against cardiovascular conditions, including high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. 
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are high in L-arginine, a key amino acid. Eating nuts and seeds regularly helps to lower blood pressure, improve mental function and boost endurance. Many studies have shown that a variety of nuts and seeds provide health benefits. They also contain necessary nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins and polyphenols. Plus they help lower inflammation in the body, which in turn also helps preserve cardiovascular health. [13, 14]
- Watermelon: Watermelon is high in an amino acid known as L-citrulline, which then converts to L-arginine. Then L-arginine converts to nitric oxide. As a result, consuming watermelon can help to boost nitric oxide levels and in turn improve blood flow. There’s even research that indicates watermelon may help with erectile dysfunction. 
- Red wine: Many powerful antioxidants are found in red wine. Red wine also helps increase levels of nitric oxide in the body. Because of this, red wine helps to lower blood pressure and boost heart health. It’s important to note that it is not the alcohol that causes this effect. Rather it is the antioxidant compounds in red wine known as polyphenols that cause these health benefits. [16, 17]
Nitric Oxide-Boosting Supplements
If you’re having trouble getting enough healthy nitrates in food, try taking a nitric oxide-boosting supplement. The two most common ingredients in these supplements include some amino acids that are critical to NO production:
L-arginine is an amino acid that helps dilate blood vessels once it’s converted to nitric oxide. It also plays an important role in releasing growth hormone and insulin in the body.
L-arginine is found in red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products.
People take L-arginine to help improve high blood pressure, other cardiovascular conditions, erectile dysfunction, and wound healing (often as a result of diabetes). Plus it’s also used in combination with other medications and supplements to help treat a variety of conditions. 
L-citrulline is a nonessential amino acid, which means the human body can make it so it’s not a necessary dietary nutrient. That said, L-citrulline is converted to L-arginine by the kidneys. And, as noted above, L-arginine plays a key role in cardiovascular health and metabolism.
Animal studies have also shown that L-citrulline may help treat certain intestinal conditions such as celiac disease, short-bowel disease, and intestinal damage caused by radiation. 
Antioxidants to Boost Nitric Oxide Levels
Include more antioxidant-rich foods in your diet. Here are four to keep in mind: 
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C plays a key role in building and maintaining the body’s connective tissues and producing neurotransmitters that help your brain and nervous system communicate. In addition, studies have shown the importance of vitamin C in nitric oxide function. For example, a study has shown that it helps augment the effects of L-arginine on in patients with coronary artery disease.  Citrus fruit and leafy green vegetables are great sources of vitamin C.
- Vitamin E: Not only has vitamin E been found to help protect cells from the effects of free radicals plus boost the immune system, but vitamin E therapy has also been shown to help nitric oxide function in the body, resulting in improved blood flow in patients with high levels of cholesterol.  Nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, and fortified cereals are all healthy sources of vitamin E to add to your diet.
- Polyphenols: Polyphenols are plant compounds that have been found to have many health benefits. In fact, long-term consumption of plants containing polyphenols has shown the potential to protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.  Examples of foods high in polyphenols include blueberries, pears, grapes, cherries, strawberries, tea, and spinach. 
- Glutathione: Glutathione plays a key role in detoxifying the cells in the body. Animal studies have also shown that it has an essential function with nitric oxide in insulin synthesis.  Sulfur-rich foods contain glutathione. Examples of these foods include garlic and onions; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts; foods rich in selenium, like Brazil nuts, fish, and organ meats; avocadoes, spinach, and okra.
- Nitrates are found in larger quantities in vegetables, primarily due to nitrogen found in the soil.
- Avoid poor sources of nitrates such as processed meats like lunch meat.
- When nitrates come in contact with certain bacteria and enzymes, they turn into nitrites.
- Nitrites can either become nitric oxide, which you want, or they can turn into nitrosamines, which you don’t want as these increase your risk of cancer and other serious health concerns.
- Eating a diet high in healthy foods that contain large amounts of nitrates is one of the best ways you can ensure that your body produces enough nitric oxide.
- You can also take nitric oxide-boosting supplements to help make sure your body is producing the nitric oxide you need.