Beets have been cultivated for a very, very long time; since pre-historic times in the Mediterranean area and were originally grown only for their leaves which many eat today but not like we did in the past. During the Roman empire, people began to eat the roots as well. Today, beets and beet dishes are still widely popular throughout Europe especially with dishes like borscht.
They pack a lot of good stuff for few calories. Two medium beets, or about 100g, has:
- calories: 44
- carb: 10 g
- protein: 2 g
- fiber: 2 g
- manganese: 16% daily value (DV)
- potassium: 9% DV
- magnesium: 6% DV
- iron: 4% DV
- folate: 20% DV
They also have a ton other nuanced compounds. Not technically nutrients in that we don’t need them to survive but rather compounds (phyto-nutrients), with impressive sounding names such as nitrates, phenolics like flavonoids & phenolic amines, carotenoids, and betalains that support overall health and moves us from ‘fine’ to ‘optimal’ or ‘thriving’ when it comes to health.
6 Ways beets boost your health
1. Blood pressure: maintaining a healthy blood pressure, roughly in the 120/80 range, is one of the best ways to maintain the youthfulness of your blood vessels, as well as, reducing your risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, vision loss, and kidney failure.
Anything that can help to prevent high blood pressure or reduce blood pressure once elevated is a good thing. This is where beets come in. Research has shown that beets can reduce blood pressure by 4 to 10 mmHg – not bad at all. In other words, if your blood pressure was 140/90, you could see a drop to 136/86 to 130/80 and all this, within a few hours of consuming them (1, 2).
While the effect seems to be better with raw beets versus cooked, don’t through the baby out with the bath water…eat beets anyway you enjoy them (3, 4). Beets contain nitrates (no they’re not bad and not to be confused nitrites in processed meats) which the blood vessels convert to nitric oxide, a gas that causes the blood vessels to relax and expand which lowers blood pressure (5).
2, Athletic performance: Again, nitrates seem to play the leading role when it comes to beets ability to improve athletic performance. Nitrates seem to enhance the efficiency of the mitochondria, the part of the cells that are responsible for energy production and muscle cells have 1000s of them per cell! (6).
This effect has been studied in cyclist and swimmers and the peak effect of beets on performance seems to be around 2-3 hours after consumption, the time where nitrate concentration in the blood is maximal (7, 8, 9, 10). To reap the benefits of beet-based nitrates on athletic performance, you need to consume beets about 2-3 hours before the start of exercise.
3. Brain health: people fear cognitive decline more than most things. The reality is, without adequate protection from oxidation, the brain would in effect ‘rust’; luckily many of the foods we eat provide the protection our brains need and beets can help with this (11). Cognitive decline is also thought to be the result of decreased blood flow; when blood flow is diminished, the brain doesn’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to be its best (12). The nitrates in beets helps to maintain healthy blood flow to the brain including the frontal lobe where memory and decision making happens; studies have shown how beets can positively influence this (13, 14).
5. Inflammation: inflammation can be unhealthy when it is chronic and in response to an ongoing stimulus such as tissue damage from pollution, smoking, high sugar intake, alcohol or structural damage as seen with high blood pressure or autoimmune diseases. Anything that helps to reduce the production of proinflammatory compounds (cytokines) will help to reduce the impact of inflammation, prevent and help manage chronic diseases. Beets are full of antioxidants including those from so-called phytonutrients such as those pigments found in beets called betalains (17, 18, 19, 20)
6. Heart disease: one of the lesser known risk factors for heart disease is homocysteine, in short, a by-product of protein metabolism/digestion. The way it increases the risk for heart disease is by driving inflammation & causing blood vessel damage; blood concentration of homocysteine is a predictor of cardiovascular disease. Beets contain the phytonutrient betaine, as well as, folate, both of which are involved in homocysteine meabolism. In this case, they help to convert it to a safer amino acids call methione (21, 22). Studies have that heart disease and heart disease risk are reduced when homocysteine levels are reduced (23).
Buying, storing and preparing beets
Buying and storing*
- Look for firm, small to medium-size beets (up to 3 inches in diameter.) The outside may be rough, but should be dry and taut.
- Loosely wrap in paper towel and keep in refrigerator crisper for up to one week. They can also be kept in a root cellar or other cool location.
- Scrub under running water to remove any trace of dirt, dry on paper towel.
- You can oven-bake beets whole, peeled, cubed or sliced and simmered in rich vegetable soups such as Borscht. Or boil or steam until tender. Pickling is another option.
- Cooked beets are tasty in cold salads with vinaigrette, mayonnaise or Greek skorthalia (a purée of mashed potato, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.)
- And they can be quickly finished in a hot oven, tossed with pan juices from a roast.