Q&A with Dr. Fogarty: The Curious Science Behind Why Leafy Greens are an Athlete’s Best Friend

In this blog series, we ask Dr. Fogarty, a nutrition and exercise expert from the UK, to weigh in on the science behind how eating a vegetable-based rainbow diet  can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Mark Fogarty earned a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom where he has been researching, publishing and lecturing on natural nutritional intervention in the context of exercise stress for over a decade.

Spinaca Farms: You’ve mentioned before you do a lot of work with watercress and athletic performance. Why? What makes watercress so special?

Dr. Fogarty: Ah watercress, the food of the Gods! Or wait, no, that’s chocolate! Let’s just say if watercress tasted a lot more like chocolate the world would be a much healthier place. But before we dig int, let’s kick this off with a little history lesson, shall we?

The ancient Egyptians used to give a squeeze of watercress to their slaves twice a day to improve their work performance. Hippocrates widely considered the founder of medicine grew watercress in the springs around his Hospital on Kos and used it to treat blood disorders. Later the Persians and Romans swore by its capacity to provide energy for battle and war so much so that the Persians used to feed it to their children to help them grow big and strong. Here in Britain since the Earl of Sandwich paired this sweet peppery green superfood with cold roast beef in the nation’s first ever take-away, we have been eating more than anyone else in the world (but still not enough of in my opinion). In 1980 a contamination scare really killed the watercress market and the roast beef sandwich was replaced with another peppery vegetable—horseradish.

So what makes watercress so special then? What did the Ancient ones know that we don’t? To start, it’s full of nutrients like, iron, vitamins and minerals. But there is more to it than just that. Watercress is also packed with a group of compounds called glucosinolates, an umbrella term given to a wider group of powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules that are linked with anti-cancerous properties.

So, it’s not so much the concentrations of good things in watercress it’s the variety of them! I can’t think of another plant that has the combination of not just really high quantities of nutrients but also the widest variety. Vitamin K, A, C, B6 riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, Iron, potassium sodium etc., etc. A 100g serving will give you a minimum of 10% of one of these nutrients all the way up to over 200% for others and 100g is not that much.

The other thing that watercress has is lots and lots of a new compound of interest in the plant world and that is nitrates.

Spinaca Farms: Wait! Aren’t nitrates bad for you?

Dr. Fogarty: Ok, so why do nitrates have a bad reputation? I’ll put it to you like this: How long could a healthy person survive for if inhaling 100% oxygen? I actually couldn’t find a specific answer to that question but the list of bad things that happens (seizures, brief periods of rigidity followed by convulsions and unconsciousness) I’m going to guess not very long. The point here is that too much of anything is really bad for humans—even something as necessary as oxygen is toxic at high concentrations. Nitrates and nitrites have a bad reputation because they’re often used as a preservative in food like bacon, ham, sausages and hot dogs (to name a few) and they’ve been blamed for horrible things like cancer.

However, the number of nitrates/nitrites in these types of foods is actually relatively small compared to vegetables. I mean this might be slightly controversial here but maybe it’s not the nitrates fault and maybe it’s daily bread of hot dogs and bacon that just might be the problem. Don’t get me wrong the odd hot dog at a baseball game never killed anyone (unless they choked on it—“Field of Dreams” I’m looking at you), but if you have two every day (one is never enough) then you’re asking for trouble. I think we all need to take a bit more of a common-sense approach to our diet and maybe not have bacon and eggs for breakfast every day (maybe I watch too many American TV shows).

Spinaca Farms: Well our minds are blown! Tell us the good news about nitrates.

Dr. Fogarty: So what else do nitrates do? As said in “The Martian”, lets science the sh1t out of this.

So nitrates by themselves don’t do much. They are usually converted to nitrates in the mouth by bacteria as part of the digestive process. Nitrites can then be further reduced to Nitric Oxide which is a potent vasodilator (it make our arteries wider) and thus helps to control blood pressure.

Increasing the availability of nitrates in our diet means we don’t need to rely on internal mechanisms to produce this compound and can react to challenges on the arterial system quicker. There is also a lot of evidence to show that a healthy more elastic arterial system is associated with a significant reduction in mortality from a cardiovascular event.

The un-science-y translation: If you eat vegetables high in nitrates (not hot dogs or bacon because they have other bad stuff in there, plus they aren’t, ahem, vegetables) you will improve the health of your arteries by reducing the strain on the pipes which in turn reduces the strain on the heart itself. These two things combine to tell us two things: 1) You’re less likely to have a heart attack 2) If you do have one you’re more likely to survive it.

Spinaca Farms: What do you see as the future of leveraging vegetables for not only health but to enhance athletic performance? What forms will they take?

Dr. Fogarty: So, if we think about athletic performance as general human performance—whatever works for the superhumans should also work with us mere mortals. So I’ll discuss athletes but keep in the back of your head that this works for everyone regardless of age or physical ability.

In the athletic world nitrates are def the buzz at the minute and over here in the UK beetroot juice has made some big waves. Watercress actually has more nitrates compared to beetroot actually. The theory here is increasing vasodilation increases blood flow to skeletal muscle enabling athletic performance to be greatly enhanced particularly in endurance-based sports.

The results would appear to support that theory for sure, but we could certainly conduct more testing and more rigorously. The athletic world is a fickle one and people are always chasing the latest trend. Five years ago I read an interview with a top MMA athlete and he said he was taking 39 vitamin pills and supplements a day for a host of different reasons. There also appears to be a trend in American Football to supplement with IV’s of antioxidants cocktails which when you read the content of some of these things reads like a can of Red Bull. Would you inject Red Bull straight into your veins? When does that ever sound like a good idea? I don’t know who thinks of these things.

Thankfully this shortcut mentality seems to be decreasing a little possibly due to the risk of testing positive due to a tainted supplement. Indeed, veganism is becoming quite popular with athletes for the same reason many other people are turning to this type of diet. This seems to be a complete reversal of the major trend last year which was all about paleo/cavemen/ketogenic diets which are basically high protein high fat (good fats) and low carbs so basically meat, meat and more meat.

Spinaca Farms: Prediction time! What do you think is going to be the next hot trend?

Dr. Fogarty: If I knew that I’d be a millionaire! Maybe we can market a watercress and carrot juice IV cocktail and see what happens.

There is no doubt vegetables play a massive role in our diets and we don’t eat anywhere near enough of them. We just have to keep pushing that message and a balanced approach to life. Reduce meat intake, increase vegetable intake and reduce high carbohydrates. It’s not even that difficult to do once you put your mind to it.

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