Beets: surprising health food

beets for blood pressure (photo: B.D.'s world via Flickr)

There’s been a lot of buzz about beets lately.  Apparently they can lower blood pressure and improve athletic performance.  Sounds like a lot to ask of a vegetable, so I had to check it out.  Plus I’ve got beets growing in my garden, although they’re golden beets, which may not work the same as the purple ones.

The secret to the unique health benefits of beets is attributed to the high nitrate content.  We metabolize food nitrates to nitric oxide, which wears many metabolic hats, so to speak, from blood pressure regulation to muscle contraction and glucose modulation.  Studies have linked beet juice to lowered blood pressure, and in one study, the effect was immediate and impressive when subjects consumed a hefty dose of beet juice at one sitting: roughly 2 cups (about 16 oz).  Could you do that everyday to control blood pressure?

One of the more interesting potential benefits of nitrates is improvement of athletic performance.  Imagine, a perfectly legal way to enhance performance without drugs – eat a lot of beets, or drink beet juice.  Studies look at speed, oxygen consumption and muscle efficiency in small groups of highly trained athletes.  In one such study, bicyclists who drank 500 ml (roughly 2 cups) of beetroot juice before a time trial ride had higher power output and went faster compared to drinking a non-nitrate-containing juice.

So Beet-orade anyone?  Don’t laugh.  Supplements?  Again don’t laugh.  Companies are already trying to take advantage of this, particularly for the athletic performance/body building customer.  Keep this in mind: the nitrates found in food must be metabolized to the biologically beneficial nitric acid, and the process starts in your mouth.  Apparently the bacteria normally found in saliva play a critical role in the process that metabolizes nitrates.  So swallowing pills of nitrates will by-pass that step.  Another important consideration: excess nitrates can be toxic.  This makes it all the more important to rely on food sources.

Some of the supplements that claim to promote nitric oxide formation use a completely different pathway to nitric oxide production: metabolism of the amino acid arginine.  You get arginine from protein foods, so you likely consume it on a daily basis from food anyway.  The value of taking extra arginine in pills is unclear.  And the results of studies using beet juice don’t say anything about arginine metabolism.

So if you want to take advantage of the beet juice concept, you could buy beet juice, or make your own if you have a juicer.  The trouble is, you’d need to drink some daily to maintain the benefits.  Other foods are high in nitrates, notably root vegetables like carrots, turnips and even radishes.  Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach can also be high in nitrates.  Content of nitrates will vary from one beet to another, depending on soil conditions, water, growing conditions and type of beet.  I’m not sure how golden beets compare to red ones.

You arent limited to drinking beet juice to get these benefits.  If you want to add beets to your meals, but don’t particularly like boring boiled beets, try making a salad with fresh cooked beets, chunks of feta or goat cheese, a splash of olive oil, a splash of wine or balsamic vinegar to taste, salt and pepper.  This works well with both purple and golden beets.  Another option: pureed beet soup, sometimes referred to as borscht.  You can eat it hot in winter, or cold in summer, with a dollop of Greek style yoghurt.  Professional athletes aren’t likely to take a borscht break in the middle of a bike race, so if the beneficial effects of beet juice are the real deal, expect to see Beet-orade in your grocery store in the near future.

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