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Eating 1 Cup of Green Leafy Vegetables Can Support Heart Health

Woman eating a green salad.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows that eating what is equivalent to 60 milligrams of vegetable nitrate per day can reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • 60 milligrams of vegetable nitrate is about 1 cup of raw greens.
  • Foods that contain vegetable nitrates like spinach, bok choy, and beetroot, should be included in a healthy lifestyle.

As if you needed another reason to eat your greens, new research shows that eating one daily cup of nitrate-rich vegetables can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Nitrates are compounds naturally produced in certain foods, predominantly in greens like spinach, arugula, and celery. But other vegetables like beetroot contain nitrates as well. 

“Eating leafy greens has long been associated with a number of health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” Sarah Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN, a Boston-based registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, tells Verywell. “This study gives us just another reason to add leafy greens to our day. The results suggest that you can reap the benefits from just 60 grams [of vegetable nitrates] or about 1 cup raw per day (even less cooked), so you don't have to go crazy with greens either.”

How Can Nitrates Help Support Heart Health?

Our bodies depend on many chemicals to function properly. And our heart health can be supported by chemicals that help relax the blood vessels. This allows them to widen, which increases blood flow throughout the body. More efficient blood flow means more oxygen can reach vital organs to support their functions. 

Nitric oxide is a chemical that is known to support the dilating (or widening) of blood vessels. Nitrates are converted to nitric oxide in the body, thus fueling the body with this key chemical. Adequate levels of nitric oxide are linked to benefits like lower blood pressure.

Nitrates Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

The study aimed to investigate the association between vegetable nitrate intake and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Results of this study were published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in April.

To do this, over 53,000 people without cardiovascular disease when the study began were evaluated. Vegetable nitrate intake was recorded via a self-reported food frequency questionnaire and evaluated. During 23 years of follow-up, 14,088 cases of CVD were recorded. 

Results show eating more vegetable nitrate was associated with a lower blood pressure measurement at the start of the study.  Plus, a moderate intake of vegetable nitrate (around 60 milligrams per day) was linked to a reduced incidence of CVD. No additional benefits were seen for higher intakes of vegetable nitrate. 

Those with moderate to high vegetable nitrate intakes also showed:

  • 12% lower risk of ischemic heart disease
  • 15% lower risk of heart failure
  • 17% lower risk of ischemic stroke
  • 26% lower risk of peripheral artery disease hospitalization

When alcohol use was considered, those who drank more than 2 standard drinks of alcohol per day saw less benefits in reducing CVD risk.

“While there is always room for error when self-reported measures are assessed as in the Food Frequency Questionnaire used in this study, these results are promising as we do know the benefits of eating more vegetables are known throughout the literature,” Elizabeth Shaw MS RDN CPT, nutrition expert and author, tells Verywell.

Previous Research

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. High blood pressure is one of many risk factors associated with developing heart disease. So, incorporating natural ways to support healthy blood pressure, like taking in dietary nitrates, has been a topic of interest in the past.

Meta-analyses of over 50 clinical trials found a link between higher nitrate intake and lower blood pressure.

However, not all studies have found positive results. One large study evaluating over 60,000 women showed that eating vegetable nitrate did not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), the most common type of heart disease.

What This Means For You

If you are trying to support your heart health, make it a point to include vegetable nitrates in your diet. Try eating salad with more greens or incorporate the vegetables into your daily meals.

How to Eat More Nitrate-Rich Vegetables

Including nitrate-rich vegetables in your diet may sound daunting, but finding ways to “sneak them in” can help you meet the 60 mg/day nitrate quota.

"The good news is that there are a variety of greens to choose from that all offer similar benefits, and they are incredibly versatile,” Anzlovar explains. “Whether it's spinach, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, bok choy, or collard greens, choose the ones you like best because if you enjoy eating them, you'll actually stick to it.”

Eating beetroots or drinking beetroot juice can fuel your body with vegetable-based nitrate too.

Some ways to include these vegetables in your diet include:

  • Enjoying a salad with a variety of greens
  • Drinking beetroot juice instead of a soda
  • Adding greens to a smoothie
  • Scrambling eggs with a handful of spinach
  • Adding greens to soups
  • Baking homemade kale chips and using them instead of tortilla chips

Also, as Shaw adds, “if eating 1-cup of leafy greens isn't quite your cup of tea, don't stress. Research also supports eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (think berries, citrus fruits, etc.) to help with cardiovascular health overall too.” 

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Article Sources
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  2. Houston M, Hays L. Acute effects of an oral nitric oxide supplement on blood pressure, endothelial function, and vascular compliance in hypertensive patients. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2014 Jul;16(7):524-9. doi:10.1111/jch.12352

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts. Updated September 8, 2020.

  4. American Heart Association. Health Threats From High Blood Pressure.

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  6. Jackson JK, Zong G, MacDonald-Wicks LK, et al. Dietary nitrate consumption and risk of CHD in women from the Nurses' Health Study. Br J Nutr. 2019 Apr;121(7):831-838. doi:10.1017/S0007114519000096