Drinking beet juice is all the rage in some training circles of endurance athletes. Here’s a Q&A session I did recently for a magazine; check it out so you can separate the facts from the hype and see if you might want to try a beet juice boost.
What are the general health benefits of beets and beet juice?
They are high in carbohydrates and also contain antioxidant and antiinflammatory phytochemicals such as betanin, betaine,and vulgaxanthin. The anti-inflammatory nature is due to inhibition of the cyclooxygenase enzymes (both COX-1 and COX-2) which produce signaling molecules which are part of the inflammatory response. Beets also are rich in essential nutrients folate, vitamin C, manganese and potassium.
What are the athletic benefits of eating beets?
Consuming beets has been shown to increase time to exhaustion during strenuous exercise and decrease the oxygen cost of low intensity exercise. It appears that the performance boost would be most helpful to athletes in long events such as the half marathon, marathon, triathlon, and long distance cycling. But it doesn’t appear that any athlete would be harmed from trying it, so I’d consider adding beets or beet juice to the diet even if you aren’t per se a distance athlete. Who wouldn’t want a little more efficient energy production, right?
What specific nutrient(s) in beets offer these health/athletic benefits? How, exactly, do these nutrients benefit the body? What’s the mechanism?
The naturally occurring nitrate (NO3) in beets is likely to be behind the demonstrated benefits in athletic performance. Some of the nitrate consumed is converted into Nitric oxide (NO) in the body, which has several effects including dilating blood vessels (which reduced blood pressure) and reducing the oxygen cost of exercise (presumably improving oxidative metabolism efficiency and athletic performance.)
As far as the exact mechanism by which nitric oxide appears to improve oxygen utilization, there are a few theories. One, it could influence blood vessel dilation so that parts of a muscle which are requiring more oxygen get increased blood flow. Secondly, it’s possible that NO reduces the “slippage” of proton pumps in the mitochondria, making them more efficient in the production of energy. Third, there is some evidence that NO can act as an alternative electron acceptor, fulfilling the role that an oxygen molecule normally plays in the electron transport chain. (Not my original ideas, please see this paper for more on the potential mechanisms: http://jap.physiology.org/
Do you have to eat them right before you work out, or is this something to just generally work into your diet?
It seems like if you eat nitrate-containing foods like beets on a daily basis, the nitrate content of the blood will remain elevated enough to give an appreciable effect. But the maximal effect is probably achieved when beets or beet juice is consumed within a few hours of the athletic performance. The blood pressure lowering effect of eating nitrate rich foods peaks within 2.5-3 hours post-ingestion, and it looks like the athletic advantage is on the same time scale. So I’d have my beet juice 2.5 hours before a race, for example, if I wanted the best edge. There have also been studies showing that the effect isn’t lost when the beet juice is supplemented for 15 days so it’s doesn’t wear off and stop working after a week, for example. (More here: http://ajpregu.physiology.org/
Is there a particular way you have to prepare beets in order to get the health/athletic benefits? Luckily, the nitrate in beets is pretty sturdy, so for these effects (athletic boost) just about any preparation method is fine. For the other phytochemicals, betalains and the like which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, they are more fragile so less time exposed to heat the better. Brief steaming or eating raw in a salad is best to preserve those.
Is drinking beet juice just as beneficial as eating beets?
Yes. I’d say go with what you prefer!
What if you don’t like beets? Are there fruits and vegetables with similar nutritional compositions you could swap in?
Some other vegetables have high amounts of nitrate in them such as arugula, celery, radishes, spinach. (See table 4 here: http://www.ambientemola.it/
Is it correct that some nitrates and nitrites are healthy, while others are damaging to your health? Could you explain why, and which sources of nitrates/nitrites to eat and which to avoid?
Cured meats such as bacon, hot dogs or ham usually contains sodium nitrite. The health concern is that the nitrite can form nitrosamines during cooking, which are carcinogenic. (more here: http://askgeorgie.com/?p=98). Generally, I recommend people minimize the amount of cured meats they eat (and if they do eat cured meats, cook them at lower temperatures and to less doneness, marinate beforehand with citrus juice containing vitamin C, or microwave to partially cook before grilling, all of which reduce nitrosamine formation).
I’ve heard concerns in the past from consumers or clients who hear that certain vegetables have nitrate in them, and wonder if they should limit consumption of beets, spinach and such. While it’s true that many plant foods contain ample nitrate, all evidence points to no, you don’t need to worry about the nitrates in plant foods, they do not form detectable nitrosamines during cooking. (This may be due to their natural antioxidants.) Also, huge epidemiology studies have repeatedly shown that consuming vegetables decreases risk for chronic diseases across the board. At the same time, intake of processed meats correlates consistently with colon cancer, stomach cancer, bladder cancer, and other sites.
So what’s the bottom line?
Beets, beet juice and other nitrate-rich vegetables may help give a boost to endurance athletes. If you want to give it a try, have a beet juice smoothie or meal with beets in the three hours before training to see how you feel and if you notice any appreciable benefit. For recipe ideas, try my Beet, Kale, Apple and Butternut Salad with Ginger or the Raspberry-Pear Smoothie (which contains hidden beets, you’d never know it!) from in my new book, the Racing Weight Cookbook: Eating for Peak Performance.
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