Beetroot: Power to the purple!
Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz
Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz
Given my Eastern European origins, I grew up with my grandmother (1st generation American) preparing amazing spreads of traditional foods from the motherland. We’d regularly sit down to a cultural feast of hearty, delicious Eastern European peasant foods, and I loved all of them….except borscht. For those of you not familiar with foods from behind the former Iron Curtain, borscht is a beet soup, served with a dollop or swirl of sour cream. I’m not sure this is a food ANY little kid would actively seek out, and frankly, I’ve never really craved eating beets as an adult either, although I know this is to my detriment.
Beets are a fabulous food, full of antioxidants and other important nutrients that have numerous health benefits….and they may even aid your sporting performance. If you already like beets, you’re on to a good thing. If you’ve never tried beets, you definitely should – even if just for the health benefits.
If you don’t like beets, give them another chance with this week’s recipe, a Summer Sausage Salad with spiralized beetroot. Spiralizing the beetroot means that you’re never going to get a huge mouthful of it, and the variety of strong flavors in this salad means you might find the balance is just right for your palate.
The beet (or beetroot) is a root vegetable from the same plant family as spinach and quinoa, and is usually a rich purple color (but they can also be pink, white or striped), with a somewhat sweet, earthy flavor. The bulbous beetroot can be eaten cooked or raw, while its leaves which are also edible and highly nutritious, are rather bitter, and therefore more palatable when cooked.
Beets are a rich source of fiber, folate, manganese, potassium, iron and vitamin C. Beetroots and beetroot juice have been associated with numerous health benefits, including improved blood flow, lower blood pressure and increased exercise performance. Many of these health benefits are due to their high nitrate content.
Given that beets are 88% water, it’s amazing how nutrient dense the other 12% is! 100 grams of raw beetroot contains:
That same 100g serving also provides the following daily values:
Beets are a very rich dietary source of nitrates, which is what makes them particularly interesting from a health and sporting performance perspective.
Naturally occurring dietary nitrates are a good thing. We shall save the debate about nitrates and nitrites in processed meats for another day, but suffice to say that nitrates in beets are good, while nitrites in bacon may not be as beneficial. A lot of the difference has to do with the high heat typically used to cook bacon, which changes the chemical composition of the nitrite and its effects in your body.
A vegetable based, naturally occurring nitrate is converted into nitrite by the bacteria in your mouth, which further converts into nitric oxide (NO) in the body. This is a very useful transformation, because nitric oxide sends signals to your blood vessels to relax, which increases vasodilation and lowers blood pressure. As you are probably aware, high blood pressure can be a leading cause of heart disease and strokes, so if you have a family history of such problems, we’d encourage you to start eating beets.
Increasing blood flow and oxygen in your body is advantageous for other reasons. Having greater blood flow to your brain may help stave off dementia, while this same vasodilation effect increases blood flow elsewhere in your body, which is why beets are considered to be a natural aphrodisiac ;-)
The increased vasodilation also has a performance advantage, which is why beetroot juice has become a popular sports supplement, particularly for endurance activities. Numerous studies have shown that nitrates increase the efficiency of mitochondria (the little cellular power plants that give your body energy), and this increased efficiency can reduce oxygen use during exercise, which further helps to increase the time to exhaustion. So have a few shots of beetroot juice before your next 10k run and let us know if you feel the difference!
Unlike most red or purple vegetables that derive their rich hues from anthocyanins, beets’ color comes primarily from betalain antioxidant pigments. Betalin (one of the betalains), as well as manganese and vitamin C have all been shown to be powerful inhibitors of oxidative stress, making beets potent weapons in the battle against free radicals romping around in your body.
Heart disease and metabolic diseases like diabetes are characterized by chronic unwanted inflammation. Beets are a rich source of betaine, a key nutrient synthesized from the B-complex vitamin, choline. Choline, along with folate, is important for helping regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system and by preventing unwanted build-up of homocysteine. (Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased inflammation).
Beets’ deep, rich purple color makes it a great natural coloring agent, but it may have 2 unwanted side-effects. Firstly, it stains. Always use a cutting board when preparing beets, particularly if your countertop is white. Beet juice is very difficult to get out of your clothes, and it even stains your hands. Lemon juice can help clean your skin...just be sure you don’t have any cuts on your hands before you start rubbing lemon juice around them. Secondly, beets may turn your pee purple-red. This is normal, and no, you’re not peeing blood, so relax!
If you enjoyed this article, please check out my other FitnessGenes food blogs:
Out of the kitchen, I also cover the following topics for FitnessGenes:
References and further reading