Written Sarah Curran
Most of us count beetroot as an ingredient for a tasty salad, but its benefits have been shown to extend way beyond being a tasty addition to your lunch! Beetroot was used way back in Roman times as a natural medicine. For a food to be considered beneficial to health, it must have a high bioavailability and beetroot ticks all the boxes in this regard. Beetroot is rich in antioxidants, and most importantly, from an exercise perspective, it is rich in nitrates.
What are nitrates?
Nitrates are present in all vegetables, but notably so in beetroots. Research has shown that a diet high in nitrates contributes to a healthy heart by lowering blood pressure. Dietary nitrates are converted by the body into active nitrates which then are converted to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is used by the body for many purposes including mitochondrial respiration, the regulation of blood flow and muscle contractility.
Beetroot has been shown to improve exercise performance. Realistically, the improvement may not be large, but enough to make a difference.
Beetroot and antioxidants
Beetroots vibrant colour makes it look pretty on your salad, but it is also a fantastic source of antioxidants. The betalain pigments present in beetroot appear to have an especially positive effect on health. In research, these pigments have been shown to protect the cells against oxidative injury. There is also a presence of more antioxidants in the humble beetroot, including rutin, epicatechin and caffeic acid.
Numerous studies have illustrated that nitrates may also serve as protection against oxidative stress in the cells by helping to prevent damage to DNA and protein structures.
Normally, inflammation is considered to be a natural and beneficial process in which the body’s immune system tackles an issue such as a pathogen or trauma to stop it causing harm. However, sometimes this reaction can affect the body in ways that have a negative effect on the person, especially if the reaction is not proportionate to the issue at hand.
Temporarily, these symptoms such as redness and swelling, for example, may not be that big of an issue, but if the inflammation in the body persists and becomes chronic so that normal immune function does not return to normal, long-term cell dysfunction can result. This has been implicated in contributing to the development of many chronic illnesses and disorders from heart disease to cancers.
For a long time, a class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs were chosen to tackle inflammatory disorders. The downside to chronic doses of these medications is that they may actually have negative effects on health and also have been considered ineffective for some inflammatory-related conditions. This has brought the anti-inflammatory effects of natural foods to the attention of scientists as they show promise in research without the negative side effects that other classes of drugs have displayed in the past.
This is where the betalains and extracts from beetroot steal the show. They have been shown in numerous studies to display a potent anti-inflammatory effect.
How to enjoy beetroot
Powder in a supplemental form is convenient and easy to add to shakes or even to stir into yoghurt. It also has a great shelf life as it is dried.
Steamed beetroot is delicious and makes a great addition to any meal. Steaming the beetroot will also help to preserve some of the vitamins that can be destroyed with other methods of cooking.
Raw beetroot tastes great in a salad when sliced thinly and served with some feta cheese or even kept simple with some spinach, tomatoes and lemon juice on top as a dressing.
Beetroot juice has been used in many areas of research and has displayed great health and exercise benefits. It is also another convenient way to get the good stuff on the go! Just be careful to factor in any extra sugar that may be added to the juice to make it more palatable, and be aware some brands of beetroot juice may not be as healthy as they appear to be as a result so remember to read your labels!
Take home message
There is still so much more research that we have yet to carry out on the potential benefits of beetroot and how it works. We need more clinical studies in sick populations of people as the majority of studies have been done with healthy participants. Existing studies are very promising, but mainly focus on beetroots protective effect on the heart and also as an exercise aid. Unfortunately, we have not yet any studies on the long-term implications of supplementing with beetroot over a long period of time.