The beet has long been part of human history. Some of the oldest archaeological evidence dates the consumption of beets back to the Third Dynasty of Egypt, and Greek records show beets were cultivated around 300 BC.1 Historical beetroots were long and thin, often resembling a red carrot. The modern cultivar didn’t appear until the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.
Originally, it was the beet greens that were consumed and not the fibrous roots.2 These were occasionally used for medicine. The first record of the roots being eaten was in 1542 in either Germany or Italy. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered how to extract sucrose from beets, leading to the development of the beet sugar industry, which uses fewer resources than sugarcane.
Ancient Romans believed beets were an aphrodisiac, as did the Greeks and Italians.3 They are nutrient-dense and easy to grow, making them appealing to backyard gardeners. The plants prefer full sun and a well-prepared, fertile soil.4 Since they develop a tap root, the soil should be free of rocks.
Most varieties take from 55 to 70 days to come to maturity. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week and can be frozen, canned and pickled. The green tops are edible and full of important nutrients like vitamins K, A, C, magnesium and copper.5 However, the current sugar beet crop is over 90% GMO.6
Support Your Heart Health With Beets
They may not be a common addition to your menu planning, but it might be time to consider adding beets for their nutritional benefits and unique flavor. Beets can actually increase your production of nitric oxide (NO), which relaxes arteries and reduces blood pressure.7 High blood pressure is one of the health conditions that raises your risk for severe disease with COVID-19.
Scientists believe it is the nitrates naturally found in the root that help lower blood pressure by being converted to NO, which is a vasodilator. Scientists have been interested in the action of NO as it also has a significant effect on the ability of the arterial system to deliver nutrients and oxygen.
Researchers have identified how the body converts nitrite into nitric oxide.8 In a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, scientists discussed this pathway, along with the many health benefits that may be realized by eating beets.9 Some of the vegetables with the highest nitrate content include rocket, spinach, lettuce, radish and beetroot.
In a more recent study, researchers evaluated the differences in the effect beetroot juice had on younger and older adults.10 Their hypothesis was it would improve cognitive and cardiovascular function, with a greater potential in older adults. The team engaged 24 participants: 13 younger adults and 11 who were older than 50 years.
The participants drank 5 ounces of either beetroot juice or placebo. The study team measured plasma nitrate and nitrite concentrations along with heart rate, blood pressure, cognitive function and mood. After drinking the juice, the older group had a greater elevation of plasma nitrite; they also had a more pronounced reduction in diastolic blood pressure than the younger adults.
Systolic blood pressure was lowered in both groups, which pointed to potential improvements in heart health that the root vegetable may offer.
Nitric Oxide and Your Respiratory System
In a 2018 study, researchers measured exhaled nitric oxide in individuals who had consumed beetroot juice. The researchers were interested since “Deficits in NO are linked to loss of bronchoprotective effects in airway challenges and predict symptoms of respiratory infection.”11 It’s possible, in other words, that raising exhaled NO could help protect your lungs from infection.
The team looked at the effect of beetroot juice on the flow rate of NO in men and women, as well as cardiovascular indicators and mental state. The measurements were taken at 45 minutes and 90 minutes after drinking 2.5 ounces of beetroot juice.
After drinking the juice, the participants increased their flow rate of NO by 21.3% in 45 minutes and by 20.3% in 90 minutes. One week later, the group drank a different beverage that was given as a control and the participants measured less than a 1% increase in NO flow rate. The researchers concluded:12
“As NO serves a key role in innate immunity, future research is needed to explore the potential clinical utility of beetroot and dietary nitrate to elevate FENO50 and prevent respiratory infection.”
Beetroot Juice May Boost Physical Performance
The volume and speed of oxygen delivery to the body may also help physical performance and endurance.13 Exercise physiologists have researched nitric oxide in the hope that it could enhance athletic endurance and improve performance.14
In one paper published in the journal Sports Medicine, the authors wrote of the interest in the two pathways that the body uses to develop nitric oxide as it relates to exercise physiology, improving tolerance and reducing recovery time.15 While the authors of several past studies assessed the ability of adding NO in a healthy trained population to improve performance, their conclusions were not consistent.
In some studies, dietary supplementation improved performance and in others there was no effect. The authors of this paper hypothesized the training status of the participants may have been the factor that linked a positive effect with nitric oxide supplementation.
Additionally, most of the past work had been in a group of young males, suggesting further research is necessary so that it involves people in other populations, such as females and the elderly.
There Is No One Food That Protects Health
While beets are packed with nutrients, it’s important to remember there is no single super food that protects your health and offers your body complete nutrition.16 Your body requires a variety of nutrients to support daily function and help protect against disease.
As I have talked about in the past, nutrient deficiencies can significantly impair your body’s ability to function and can increase your risk for illness or disease. It’s important to steer clear of processed foods that are high in sugar, high in calories and nearly devoid of nutrients.
You can find your healthiest foods around the perimeters of the grocery store aisles in the produce, dairy and meat sections. Remember while supplementing with a multivitamin may help fill nutrient gaps, it will never take the place of eating real food. Consider buying foods that have a longer shelf life, such as turnips, beets and hard squashes.17
According to Cape Cod Healthcare, in the days after you come home from the grocery store, it’s a good strategy to first eat the foods that have a shorter shelf life, like salad greens, tomatoes and cucumbers; save the vegetables with a longer shelf life for later. Another option is to grow some of your vegetables at home, whether indoors in pots or outside.
There are several vegetables and herbs that do well in pots, including lettuce, basil, cilantro, onions and garlic. In fact, you may be able to grow enough to contribute to your dinner salad every evening.
Meal Planning Eases Panic Buying
Cooking creatively can be challenging, especially when your stress level may be higher than normal. It helps to develop a meal plan for the week and make your grocery list to fit the plan. This helps you stay within budget and reduces the number of impulse buys at the grocery store. Buying foods to fit your meals plan may also help you keep from panic buying.
Accept the fact that you may have some cravings for comfort food and try to make those foods at home, in order to cut down on the amount of processed food you eat. By making healthier food choices you’ll support your overall health and reduce your risk for illness.
Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as grass fed dairy and meat, is a smart way to lower the risk of nutrient deficiencies. While you’re spending more time at home, you have a great opportunity to add fermented foods to your diet plan. They are easy to make at home using fresh vegetables, and preparing them yourself gives you control over the flavor and texture.
By using a starter, you’ll find that the fermented foods you produce at home offer your body a wide range of bacteria that help promote the health of your gut microbiome. Read more about the benefits of fermented foods as well as tips to make your own at home in “Flavorful Fermented Foods Have Healing Properties.”
However, please understand that you certainly do not want to overdo beets as they are loaded with oxalates and can harm your health. I personally don’t eat them but if you do decide to use them certainly use them in moderation.