We all love crunchy, well-seasoned, sometimes sweet foods. They satisfy with texture and taste, but often they come at the cost of our health and energy. The kind of energy we're referring to is the energy that comes from nitric oxide - and the foods we should avoid that decrease nitric oxide subsequently result in deteriorated health.
Nitric oxide is a gaseous signaling molecule in the body that helps our cells communicate. It also relaxes the smooth muscle on the outer lining of our arteries, allowing them to widen, making room for oxygen and nutrients to flow easier throughout the body. Nitric oxide is naturally produced in the body, and as we age, our ability to produce nitric oxide in the body reduces. Added to the aging decline of nitric oxide, its relationship to lifestyle choices: exercise, diet, meditation, and breathing habits.
Being conscientious about functional foods means thinking about how they impact our health, environment, society, economics, culture, nitric oxide levels, and personal enjoyment. Making poor food choices usually comes with a cascade of less desirable outcomes - they are worse for the environment, societally and economically irresponsible, and diminished health. The same can be said for consciously positive functional food choices; they are better for the environment, improve health, benefit society and the economy. We feel better having eaten them, i.e., personal enjoyment.
It might not be evident, but when we make food choices, there is a cascade of outcomes like:
Environmental impact - eating plants helps preserve soil and avoids some of the pitfalls that come with highly processed foods like - higher fuel/transportation, more packaging, increased water contamination, emissions of volatile organic compounds released during preparation.
Societal impact - eating functional foods like plants, especially those that are grown safely and benefit society. On the other hand, fast and many pre-packaged foods have been associated with higher rates of depression and disease.
Economic impact - the food we choose to eat has an economic impact that is felt globally. Billions of dollars go into subsidizing the processed food industry. In a report by The Guardian, it was estimated that the obesity epidemic costs the global economy about $2 trillion. When we invest in healthier, functional food we support better economic systems.
How one poor food choice can affect nitric oxide levels
Demonstrating the detrimental effects of just one fast food meal, a study published in The American journal of cardiology examined healthy participants and their endothelial functions after just one high-fat fast food meal. It was noted that endothelial health diminished for 6 hours as a result of the high-fat fast food meal. Blood vessels tighten, and vital endothelial signs of health showed impaired functioning with signs of recovery noticeable after 6 hours of fast food consumption.
Another similar study published in Physiology Reports found that the direct culprit for the reduction in endothelial function was the increase in production of what’s called reactive oxygen species - a type of free radical that scavenges nitric oxide molecules and can cause cell death and damage to DNA, RNA, and proteins. The fast-food attack on nitric oxide.
Keeping nitric oxide levels high is vital for oxygen
A vital element for human survival - oxygen - is responsible for the quality of our body’s functions. The brain alone demands 20% of the body’s oxygen supply to function properly despite only comprising 2% of the body.
Our nitric oxide levels directly impact our body’s oxygen delivery. Nitric oxide doesn’t just help transport oxygen, but it’s required for red blood cells to deliver oxygen from our lungs to all tissue in the body. Chronic nitric oxide deficiency will result in lowered oxygen transportation from the air in the lungs to our body’s tissue. While we can’t see this happening, the results can feel like decreased energy, exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and lowered nutrient transport to vital organs.
Increasing nitric oxide production in the body with nitrate-rich foods is vital, but just as important is avoiding or substituting the foods that lower nitric oxide. Here’s a guide to foods that deplete nitric oxide.
Salty foods reduce nitric oxide production
Salt is a major ingredient in processed foods because it suppresses bitter flavors and enhances sweetness. Too much salt in one day can cause vascular constriction, and this is why salty foods are associated with specific cardiovascular risks.
A study in the Journal of Hypertension showed that salt loading (the uptake of large quantities of salt) was found to reduce nitric oxide production drastically. The study was conducted on both salt-sensitive and salt-resistance subjects and demonstrated the same effect - nitric oxide depletion. It’s unclear if nitric oxide was depleted by the hypertensive response or if the hypertensive response caused a depletion in nitric oxide.
When it comes to moderate usage of salt, studies show that health risks begin to emerge when we exceed 5 grams of salt a day. As a preventative measure against cardiovascular diseases, the World Health Organization recommends consuming no more than the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt in a day. Another way to reduce salt intake is to substitute salt with soy-based miso paste.
Foods typically high in salt:
- Vegan meats
- Canned beans and vegetables
- Some salad dressings
- Salted nuts and seeds
- Many breads
- Pre-packaged foods
- Crackers and chips
Saturated fats diminish endothelial health and attack nitric oxide
High-fat fast food meals were the focus of the study above - for good reason, high saturated fat foods deplete nitric oxide and cause endothelial health breakdown for a considerable period of time after eating a high-fat fast food meal. For those who eat fast food as a matter of habit, they’re hardly giving their bodies anytime to recover. Say they have three high-fat fast-food meals; you can estimate that about 18 out of 24 hours of their day, their body is being bombarded, almost attacked by low endothelial health outcomes.
Metabolic issues begin to arise as a result of a high saturated fat diet. Nitric oxide is depleted and is incredibly hard to produce once a person’s lifestyle has crossed the threshold of metabolic issues. According to research from Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, habitual high-fat diets are directly associated with endothelial dysfunction.
The reduction of saturated fats helps avoid the depletion of nitric oxide production and will contribute to overall health. One study published in the Archives of biochemistry and biophysics showed that an unsaturated high-fat diet had the opposite effect on nitric oxide levels and enhanced nitric oxide bioavailability.
Saturated fats are detrimental to nitric oxide levels
Saturated fats tend to increase cholesterol. Most high cholesterol foods come in the form of meats and dairy products, (LDL) low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Having a diet that is heavy in LDL cholesterols reduces nitric oxide production. Founder of NutritionFacts.org, Dr. Michael Gregr, says LDL cholesterol is found in trans fats. Trans fats increase LDL while at the same time lowering HDL cholesterol or the “good” high-density lipoprotein.
Researchers measured the nitric oxide production levels of study participants who underwent an LDL lowering diet or a “lipid-lowering diet.” Participants demonstrated a measured effect of improved endothelial function as a result of the lipid-lowering therapy compared with placebo participants. The improvement was also documented to increase the bioavailability of nitric oxide.
Avoid these foods high in saturated fats that raise LDL (bad) cholesterol:
- Meat & dairy products
- Processed foods
- Fried foods
- Cooking oils
- Palm oil in processed foods
Too much sugar deactivates nitric oxide
In a lab, researchers tested the effects of glucose on pure nitric oxide solutions, and the results showed a steep decrease in nitric oxide concentration. Meaning when high glucose levels are present, nitric oxide becomes chemically inactive. Researchers hypothesize this may be the reason for metabolic issues related to poor endothelial functioning.
Multiple studies confirm this lab experiment. Elevated glucose levels lead to an imbalance of nitric oxide levels, and research suggests controlling glucose levels by avoiding sugar spikes that deactivate nitric oxide. If glucose levels become elevated, research suggests consuming more nitrate-rich, L-Arginine, and L-Citrulline foods.
Foods that have the potential to spike glucose levels:
- White grains (rice, pasta, bread)
- High starch foods
- Highly processed foods
- Some milk varieties such as cow’s milk, unsweetened soy milk, chocolate soy milk, vanilla almond milk, and milk with added sugar.
Sugars come labeled in various forms:
- brown sugar
- agave nectar
- maple syrup
- raw sugar
- cane crystals
- cane sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- crystalline fructose
- evaporated cane juice
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
Opt for slow-burning carbs that won’t spike blood sugar levels so easily, like unprocessed grains, quinoa, beans, fruits, and vegetables. When it comes to sugar, try to sweeten with fruits or whole food syrups made from dates or yacon root.
Too much alcohol depletes nitric oxide
Surprisingly, consuming alcohol in low doses increases nitric oxide production, according to a study published in an Oxford Journal, Alcohol and Alcoholism. The same study shows that going beyond small quantities and consuming elevated levels of alcohol or chronically consuming alcohol works to lower nitric oxide production (this does not include red wine). While studies don’t recommend consuming hard alcohol for the sake of raising nitric oxide levels (as there are healthier ways to boost nitric oxide), they do suggest avoiding heavy and chronic alcohol consumption as it is vitally dangerous to nitric oxide levels.
Studies that specifically focus on red wine (not hard alcohol), show elevated nitric oxide levels and increased heart-protective characteristics as a result of the high polyphenols like resveratrol. Now, that’s something we can all cheers to! Lesson - opt for red wine and if you consume other forms of alcohol, do so in moderation to maintain healthy nitric oxide levels.
While it’s important to dodge the dangerous foods that deplete nitric oxide, it’s key to take in nitric oxide boosting foods. Learn more about which foods boost nitric oxide here:
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Vogel, R. A., Corretti, M. C., & Plotnick, G. D. (1997). Effect of a single high-fat meal on endothelial function in healthy subjects. The American journal of cardiology, 79(3), 350–354. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-9149(96)00760-6
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Dow, C. A., Stauffer, B. L., Greiner, J. J., & DeSouza, C. A. (2015). Influence of habitual high dietary fat intake on endothelium-dependent vasodilation. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 40(7), 711–715. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2015-0006
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