Eating nitrite/nitrate-rich foods such as vegetables and cured meats may help improve the chances of surviving a heart attack and of recovering more quickly.
That's the finding of a preliminary study in the Nov. 12 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers found that mice fed extra nitrite and nitrate had 48 percent less cell death in the heart following a heart attack than mice fed a regular diet. Mice fed a low nitrite/nitrate diet had 59 percent greater cell death.
The study also found that 77 percent of mice fed extra nitrite survived a heart attack, compared with 58 percent of mice fed a low nitrite diet.
"This is a very significant finding, given the fact the simple components of our diet -- nitrite and nitrate -- that we have been taught to fear and restrict in food can now protect the heart from injury," lead author Nathan S. Bryan, a cardiovascular physiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said in a prepared statement.
"Simple changes in our daily dietary habits such as eating nitrite and nitrate-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables and some meats in moderation can drastically improve outcome following a heart attack," said Bryan, who is also an assistant professor at the university's Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases.
He explained that nitrite forms nitric oxide gas during a heart attack, which reopens closed or clogged arteries and reduces the amount of permanent damage to the heart muscle.
"This paper provides the first demonstration of the consequences of changes in dietary nitrite and nitrate on nitric oxide biochemistry and the outcome of heart attack," Bryan said.
The next logical step in this line of research would be to determine if increasing nitrite/nitrate intake in patients with known cardiovascular risk factors would decrease the incidence and severity of heart attack and stroke, or enhance recovery, he said.