Nitric Oxide: The Molecule You've Probably Never Heard of (But Need More of for Heart Health)
Here’s one more reason to eat your greens — with 15 delicious recipes to grab those nitric oxide benefits
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Spinach Salad with Toasted Pecans and Cranberries. Photograph by Olga Ivanova
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There are probably already plenty of things you watch for in your diet. It’s well established you should limit saturated fat and get plenty of fiber, for example. Perhaps you track your calories and grams of protein, or maybe you seek out rich sources of vitamin C. But there is one thing you probably need more of that you’re not even aware of: Nitric oxide.
Dr. Nathan Bryan, author of The Nitric Oxide Solution, describes it as the “miracle molecule” thanks to its ability to prevent a laundry list of common health problems, especially heart disease, which is the number one killer of Americans. Luckily, there are many foods rich in natural nitrates — nitrogen-based compounds that are a crucial building block your body needs to make more nitric oxide.
Here, Dr. Bryan answers some of the most common questions about this special molecule and explains why you need it and how to get more of it. Hint: Eat your greens! Of course we'll also get into some healthy recipes to add to your regular rotation.
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Nitric oxide Q & A with Dr. Nathan Bryan
To understand the health benefits of nitric oxide, we turned to Dr. Nathan Bryan.
Yummly: What is nitric oxide?
Bryan: In a nutshell, it’s a signaling molecule produced in the blood vessels that tells them to relax. It lowers blood pressure, fights viruses back, and brings nutrition into the cells. Most importantly, in this time of COVID, it’s how we deliver oxygen to the body.
Yummly: Why do we need more nitric oxide?
Bryan: It’s produced naturally by the body, but it seems to decrease as we age. The evidence suggests that the older you get, the less you make. By the age of 40, it looks like most people have only 50% of the nitric oxide production they did when they were 20.
We know it’s very important for almost every aspect of health. It’s one of the most studied molecules in modern medicine, and we know that lack of nitric oxide is behind many diseases. The good news is, with diet and lifestyle, you can prevent the loss of nitric oxide and even restore it. I’ve seen people in their 50s and 60s with the vascular health of a 30-year-old.
Yummly: Can you explain how nitrates work together with antioxidants to produce nitric oxide?
Bryan: Antioxidants — protective compounds that are found in abundance in colorful produce — are critically important to nitric oxide production. You need both antioxidants and nitrates (the precursor to nitric oxide) to unlock the benefits. It has to do with biochemical reactions. But in simple terms, your body needs an adequate supply of antioxidants to convert the natural nitrates in foods, especially vegetables, into nitric oxide. We have to give the body what it needs to produce nitric oxide on demand.
Yummly: What are the most important foods to focus on to increase nitric oxide?
Bryan: That’s very clear: dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, arugula, and spinach. These foods have both nitrates and antioxidants.
Yummly: Why isn’t the importance of nitric oxide for heart health more widely known?
Bryan: One reason is that our understanding of it is relatively new. Nitric oxide wasn’t discovered until the 80s and 90s. The scientists who discovered it won the Nobel prize for their work in 1998. Another reason is that it’s not easy to check with routine blood work. And unfortunately, in medicine generally, if it can’t be measured it’s often not considered important.
12 recipes with leafy greens to increase nitric oxide
As Dr. Bryan explains, there are not foods that are high in nitric oxide per se — we need to eat dark green leafy vegetables to help our body make its own nitric oxide. Here are some recipes rich in dietary nitrate and antioxidants, the nitric oxide-boosting ingredients you need to help you make more of this miracle molecule in your own blood vessels.
Grab a bowl for one of the simplest, tastiest ways to get your greens: a big spinach salad. Though it’s quick to toss together, this one is still special with the addition of toasted pecans, dried cranberries, and a mustard vinaigrette. Add some rotisserie chicken and you can call it dinner.
Give kale a 3-minute massage, and you’re almost done creating this 5-ingredient recipe, made simple but delicious with Parmesan, lemon, and olive oil. For the quickest kale prep, grasp the stems and strip off the leaves with your fingers. Save the stems to slice thin and saute with onions when you make a batch of soup.
Canned beans, carrots, onions, celery, and your favorite kind of kale star in this healthy, vegan vegetable soup recipe. Curly kale, Tuscan (aka lacinato), or red Russian kale would all be excellent here. You’ll briefly saute part of the vegetables, then add the rest of the ingredients, including vegetable broth, and simmer until tender.
If the promise of kale doesn't bring the family running to the dinner table, bubbly cheese-topped enchiladas likely will. This dish starts with warm corn tortillas around tender chicken and steamed or sauteed kale. Canned enchilada sauce makes it as weeknight-friendly as it is flavorful. Don’t forget to garnish with cilantro leaves and chopped jalapeños for a final pop of spicy and fresh flavor. If you don’t happen to have kale, you could substitute spinach or chard to help boost nitric oxide. Want a vegetarian version? Substitute two cans of black or pinto beans (or one of each) for the chicken.
There are many good reasons to have frittata recipes in your cooking repertoire. For one, eggs and cheese are an appealing vehicle for any number of healthy vegetables, especially those nitric oxide-enhancing leafy greens. Here, Swiss chard stars in a savory dish that works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Frittatas are also famously good at any temperature, making a wedge the perfect addition to a packed lunch. Serve this beauty with a big green salad to add to the meal’s health benefits.
You would never guess that this indulgent plate of creamy risotto delivers so much good-for-you arugula. Made with heart-healthy olive oil instead of butter, it’s a comfort food dinner you may want to put on repeat. Plus, it’s flexible. You could substitute chicken stock for the vegetable stock, or even use plain water (with a little more salt). No wine on hand? Just add a squeeze of lemon juice before serving. And you should definitely feel free to opt for onion instead of shallots. Though the recipe doesn’t call for it, topping the finished dish with a handful of fresh arugula, as seen in the photo, is a good call.
You can turn a full pound of fresh spinach into this luxuriously creamy and surprisingly easy version of an Indian takeout classic. Even those who typically don’t like leafy greens may find that they love this recipe. Fragrant spices including ground ginger, garam masala, and cumin give the dish its trademark flavors. Here, cubes of paneer (a fresh Indian cheese) are stirred into the spinach sauce, but you could also use tofu for a vegan version. Bite-size pieces of chicken breast would work well, too. If you don’t feel like opening a can of coconut milk for the two tablespoons called for here, use heavy cream or simply omit it. Serve over rice or with naan.
It’s hard to beat a stir-fry for that magic combination of speedy, easy, and healthy. This 15-minute recipe combines quick-cooking ground chicken with tender baby bok choy — a great green for amping up your body’s production of nitric oxide. Though it tastes like a treat, it's substantially healthier and fresher than most take-out stir-fries. You could sub ground beef or pork for the chicken or even a plant-based ground “meat” to keep it vegan. If you like your stir-fry spicy, drizzle with chili oil before serving.
One of the most underrated comfort foods, stuffed cabbage is a soul-satisfying and classic dish with roots in Eastern Europe. It’s also a way to make cabbage more appealing to anyone who has not yet embraced this ultra-healthy cruciferous vegetable’s many charms. To increase the nutrition benefits here, you could substitute cooked brown rice or farro for white rice. The recipe calls for a pound each of ground beef and ground pork — swapping one out for a pound of lean ground turkey would reduce the saturated fat. You may want to consider doubling the recipe. Stuffed cabbage freezes well, and your future self will thank you.
Mustard greens are lesser-known compared to other leafy greens like kale and arugula. You can’t always find them in a typical supermarket. But they are brimming with health benefits, including the ability to increase your production of nitric oxide, so they’re worth seeking out at a farmers’ market or Asian grocery store. Here they’re stir-fried simply with a few flavor-enhancing aromatics including garlic and chili peppers. A tiny bit of sugar softens the green’s pleasant bitterness. Serve over rice with simple steamed chicken or fish.
Chimichurri, a fresh, spicy, green condiment from Latin America, is the ideal way to use a bunch of nitric-oxide boosting parsley, as well as cilantro, as in this version. The sauce combines fresh and dried green herbs, garlic, red wine vinegar, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and olive oil for a big pop of flavor. This recipe serves chimichurri the traditional way — as a condiment for grilled beef. Try it on roasted vegetables, scrambled eggs, or pan-fried tempeh, too.
Broccoli may not be the most classic pizza topping, but it might be one of the most delicious. Bonus points: broccoli gets an A-plus for increasing nitric oxide in your blood vessels. This recipe breaks the pizza tradition further by using a white bechamel sauce instead of your typical tomato. For a short-cut, start with premade pizza dough.
Bonus: 3 recipes without greens to increase nitric oxide
Leafy greens aren’t the only vegetables that are rich in the dietary nitrates and antioxidants your body needs to produce nitric oxide. Beets, cauliflower, and kohlrabi are great sources, too.
This dish is such a stunner you won’t believe you made it in under an hour. (A food processor with a thin slicing disc, or a hand-held slicer, is your friend.) Served in the same cast-iron skillet you cook it in, it’s an eye-catching swirl of heart-healthy sweet potatoes, turnips, apples, and red onion. Though it’s not difficult to arrange the slices in a circular pattern, you can definitely throw them in the skillet willy-nilly if you don’t have the patience, and your gratin will still be healthy and delicious.
If you’ve ever loved a sweet and savory, deep-fried chicken dish at a Chinese restaurant, this recipe is for you. It removes the less healthy parts of the dish (like the deep frying) and amp up the healthiness quotient instead. The main ingredient is cauliflower, another vegetable to pump up nitric oxide production. The batter is made from whole-wheat flour, and the cauliflower florets are baked instead of fried. The sauce contains maple syrup instead of refined sugar for sweetness, and it’s balanced with savory soy sauce plus spicy sriracha, garlic, and ginger.
If you’ve ever enjoyed Lyonnaise salad at a French bistro, you’ll likely love this nitric-oxide-promoting twist. The classic salad is based on a bed of frilly, slightly bitter frisee lettuce. Here, shredded kohlrabi does the job. This lesser-known root vegetable is bulbous with a tough skin, but peeled and shredded, it is crisp, slightly sweet, and delicious — perfect for topping with the typical Lyonnaise flourishes: crisp bits of thick-cut bacon and runny poached eggs.
Foods for wellness
Whether you approach overall health with a concern such as high blood pressure, or you have more general goals in mind such as better cardiovascular health or athletic performance, the foods you eat can play an important role. Get more inspiration in these next articles.