by Kerry Potter, MS, RD, CDE
In the last year, I’ve acquired an unusual obsession with incorporating more beets into my diet. I have found all kind of creative ways to add them, from throwing some raw beets into a Sunwarrior protein shake with ginger, spinach, and carrots to roasting them with carrots, turnips, and brussels sprouts. They can be baked, boiled, steamed, or shredded raw and added to salads and slaws. As tasty as beets are, they have many health benefits too, especially from an athletic standpoint.
Athletes are always looking for the newest competitive edge. There's a new performance supplement, beet root juice, that's shaking up the athletic field. When it comes to exercise, evidence shows the nitrate content of vegetables may exert a natural performance-enhancing effect. Dietary nitrates and nitrites consumed in a natural form, as from vegetables, have the potential to influence human physiology by reducing the O2 cost of moderate-intensity exercise and may enhance exercise tolerance in healthy young adults. Beet root juice has been shown to help the body respond better to exercise by balancing oxygen use and increasing stamina.
A recent study showed six days of beet juice enhanced overall physical performance and heart functioning during exercise. Most of the literature on beet root juice suggests that a minimum of 3–6 days of supplementation is needed for the performance enhancing effects. A study published in 2009 suggested that nitrates helped people exercise up to 16% longer due to an ability to reduce oxygen demand, making exercise less tiring. I would be curious to know the effects of someone juicing their own beets on their exercise tolerance. Some of the well-known brands of beet juice on the market include Beet Elite, Beet It, and Unbeetable Performance Drink.
Besides the current beet supplements on the market, incorporating the actual vegetable in your diet is a good idea because it’s a great source of folate, potassium, and antioxidants. The leaves of beets are even higher in nutritional value than the roots, especially in calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Nitrates are found in all vegetables but are especially abundant in leafy green vegetables and in beetroot. Lastly, the high amount of antioxidants has potential benefits for its use during recovery in reducing post-exercise inflammation.
Regardless of whether you decide to add the juice supplement to your diet or consume beets in their natural form, there definitely seems to be potential to help aid in your recovery and performance in your chosen sport. However, because many benefits from certain vegetables are lost if they are overcooked, it is a good idea to try to not overcook them. Betalains (the pigment found in beets) undergo very steady loss from food as the length of cooking time is increased. Steaming your beets 25 minutes versus 15 minutes and roasting them 90 minutes versus 60 minutes can cause significant damage to betalain. For these reasons, we recommend that you keep beet steaming times to 15 minutes or less, and roasting times under an hour.
So how will you incorporate beets into your diet?