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New research suggests that drinking beetroot juice daily may help protect heart health after menopause. The study, conducted by Pennsylvania State University, found that beetroot juice is high in nitrates, which can improve blood vessel function and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in post-menopausal women.

A small study of 24 women in early and late postmenopause found that daily intake of nitrate-rich beetroot juice improved blood flow, but the positive effect diminished within 24 hours of the last intake. Menopause leads to lower estrogen levels, increasing the risk of heart disease for post-menopausal women.

Jayne Morgan, MD, a cardiologist not involved in the study, further explained that the decline in estrogen levels during menopause results in the loss of estrogen’s protective effects on the heart. Estrogen is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that helps prevent the development of plaques that can lead to heart attacks. Besides, vasomotor symptoms during menopause, such as hot flashes, are also associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

The researchers initially recruited 54 post-menopausal women from the local community, but the final analysis included only 24 women — 12 in early postmenopause and 12 in late postmenopause as they had very strict health criteria.

During the study, participants followed strict dietary guidelines. They drank two 2.3-ounce bottles of concentrated beetroot juice at the beginning of the study, then one daily for the rest of the week. Each bottle provided the same amount of nitrates as three large beets.

The researchers found that the nitrates in the beetroot juice did improve blood flow, but the effect faded within 24 hours of the last consumption.

While this study looked specifically at beets, it’s the nitrate in the beets that’s most important.

But aren’t nitrates bad?

“It is important,” the study’s senior author, Jocelyn M. Delgado Spicuzza, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University’s College of Nursing, asserted, “to be clear about the types of nitrates that can improve blood vessel function. Plants contain nitrate from the soil, so there is technically only one type of ‘nitrate’ in natural food sources. However, when discussing nitrates as preservatives or additives in animal products, there can be several forms, which some term as ‘nitrates.’ Using the singular form of nitrate is more accurate for describing the benefits of beetroot juice and the results from my research.”

The best sources of healthy nitrate are (unsurprisingly) leafy green vegetables, stem and shoot vegetables, herbs, and root vegetables. Plant-based nitrate is far healthier than meat-based nitrates.

If beets aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other heart-healthy foods for post-menopausal women, such as pomegranate juice, citrus fruits and juices, dark chocolate, berries, olive oil, garlic, fish and omega-3 fatty acids, and green tea.

Whether you like beets or not, the biggest takeaway of the study is this: Your diet plays a critical role in your risk of cardiovascular disease!

Cardiologist Cheng-Han Chen, MD, of Saddleback Medical Center, CA, also not involved in the study, stated that while the study’s premise makes sense, it wouldn’t lead him to recommend beets to post-menopausal women. He emphasized the need for more extensive trials to assess clinical outcomes related to a high-nitrate diet. Chen’s recommendations for a heart-healthy diet include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low salt, avoiding saturated fats, highly processed foods, and excessive sugar. The findings can be found in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.