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Green Leafy Vegetables May Boost Muscle Function, Study Suggests

Green vegetables

Key Takeaways

  • Eating your greens may help you optimize muscle strength and mobility, a recent study found.
  • These vegetables are potent thanks to high amounts of nitrates, which have a beneficial effect on blood flow.
  • Other studies have highlighted additional advantages of leafy greens, like lower inflammation and better gut health.

Regular consumption of vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, could improve muscle function whether you’re physically active or not, according to a recent study in The Journal of Nutrition.??

Researchers looked at just under 4,000 participants of a larger Australian study on diabetes, obesity, and lifestyle habits. Dietary choices were assessed over a 12-year time frame, with a particular focus on nitrates.

These are bioactive substances found in fruits and vegetables, particularly in green leafy vegetables like:

  • Spinach
  • Arugula
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Parsley
  • Radishes
  • Fennel

In the study, muscle function was determined with a knee-extension strength test as well as a mobility exercise that involves getting up quickly from a chair, walking briskly around an obstacle, and sitting back down—usually called a “timed up-and-go (TUG) test.”

Those with the highest nitrate intakes tended to have more strength in their knee extension and faster TUG times than those with lower consumption levels.

Previous and current physical activity didn’t significantly change the results for either muscle function measure, leading researchers to conclude that there’s a relationship between muscle strength and dietary nitrate consumption.

The Beet Goes On

The association between healthier muscles and nitrates has been explored before, especially with beets, which have a considerable amount of the substance.

A 2014 study in Sports Medicine found enhanced exercise efficiency and reduction in muscle fatigue with beetroot, with an added advantage of reduced resting blood pressure.??

A systematic review published in Nutrients in 2017 suggested that by increasing levels of nitric oxide in the body, beetroot juice might not only help muscular performance, but could improve cardiorespiratory endurance as well.??

Dietary nitrate like that found in beetroot and green leafy vegetables is a powerful vasodilator, which means muscles in the walls of your blood vessels open more, according to sports medicine researcher Cindy van der Avoort, PhD, at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. That’s good for all of your muscles, including your heart, and improves your overall function.

“Although we do use beetroot in our research because of its high nitrate amount, there are many other choices if you want to add this to your diet,” she says. For example, arugula is a standout, as are endive and kohlrabi, and even nuts and dried cranberries can add some nitrate power to your meals, she adds.

Nitrates vs. Nitrites

Although the recent study highlights the benefits of plant-based nitrates, the substance has been controversial when converted with enzymes into nitrites, a food preservative often used for processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and deli meat.

Warnings about these types of nitrates and nitrites might cause some concern about eating too much from vegetables, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

For example, the World Health Organization reported there is “convincing evidence” that processed meat causes cancer, especially colorectal cancer, and put the food in the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos.

The organization noted that meat processing that uses nitrates or nitrites leads to the formation of certain chemicals and hydrocarbons that have been linked to cancer.

However, that does not mean you should skip arugula and beets. But it also doesn’t mean bacon is the new smoking.

Reducing consumption of processed meats can be beneficial for who are concerned about nitrites, making it an occasional choice rather than a regular one.

The nitrates in plants like dark leafy greens, though, do not have that same association, in part because they don’t undergo the type of manufacturing process that changes the substance into nitrite as a preservative.

Advantages of Greens

In addition to naturally occurring nitrates that improve blood flow, dark leafy greens have often been touted for their many other properties, including high levels of vitamins and minerals, low calories, and large amount of phytonutrients—plant-based compounds shown to play a role in the prevention of chronic diseases.

Mary Purdy, RDN

With these good dietary choices, it’s not just one micronutrient that’s an advantage, you have an orchestration of all these synergistic compounds and constituents, working together in such an optimal way.

— Mary Purdy, RDN

Another big plus is the high amount of fiber you’ll get, which provides a wide range of benefits, says dietitian Mary Purdy, RDN, author of The Microbiome Diet Reset. Not only is fiber essential for better gut health, but it’s yet another heart booster since it helps reduce the body’s absorption of “bad” cholesterol. Other benefits to plant-based eating include:

  • Lowered stroke risk
  • Brain health and cognitive function
  • Reduced risk of obesity
  • Cancer prevention
  • Better digestive health
  • Improved blood sugar regulation

Most of all, Purdy adds, it's the combination of these elements that make taking a spin through the produce section into a worthwhile exercise.

Rather than opting for a nitrate supplement, or even a powdered beetroot option, incorporating more whole foods like dark leafy greens into your meals can provide the power of nitrates, but also so much more. That's particularly true when you focus on eating a diversity of vegetables, she adds, which can provide a greater breadth of nutrients.

“That’s the magic of food over supplements, although supplements have their role to some degree,” she says. “With these good dietary choices, it’s not just one micronutrient that’s an advantage, you have an orchestration of all these synergistic compounds and constituents, working together in such an optimal way.”

 

What This Means For You

Although the recent research highlights improved muscle function with dark leafy greens, that’s far from the only reason to load up your plate. Previous studies have highlighted how these veggies can lower blood pressure and optimize gut health, too.

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  1. Sim M, Blekkenhorst LC, Bondonno NP, et al. Dietary nitrate intake is positively associated with muscle function in men and women independent of physical activity levels.?J Nutr. Published online March 24, 2021. doi:10.1093/jn/nxaa415

  2. Jones AM. Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise performance. Sports Med. 2014;44(suppl 1):S35–45. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0149-y

  3. Domínguez R, Cuenca E, Maté-Mu?oz JL, et al. Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes. A systematic review. Nutrients. 2017;9(1):43. doi:10.3390/nu9010043