In the back of the produce section, hidden behind sections of beautiful bright, shiny vegetables, in an array of eye-popping Crayola-crayon colors, there’s an unassuming, misshapen dusty-looking vegetable that can catapult your training and support heart and artery health at the same time. Consider beets nature’s perfect sports and heart-friendly food wrapped up in one sweet— though unusual looking— package.
Beets are special because they contain more nitrates than their neighbors in the produce aisle— green leafy vegetables including spinach, kale and celery. When you eat nitrate-rich foods, the bacteria on your tongue convert about 20 percent of dietary nitrate to nitrite, which enters the bloodstream where it is converted to a small signaling molecule called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide controls blood flow and many metabolic processes. Increased nitric oxide production causes blood vessels to expand, increasing blood flow to working muscles. Think of your blood vessels like a garden hose. If you can open that hose even wider, more water will flow through it. In terms of blood vessel expansion, “the increase in blood flow improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to active muscles, and the removal of metabolic by-products that can interfere with muscle contraction and have an adverse effect on performance. In addition to improving the delivery of glucose to the muscles through better blood flow, nitric oxide also increases glucose (sugar) uptake by the muscle cell,” states John Ivy, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Blood glucose is a major source of fuel for working muscles.
But the benefits of nitric oxide don’t stop there. It also expands airways, making breathing easier. In addition, our cells become more efficient at producing ATP, the fastest source of energy for muscle contraction. Greater ATP production translates to improved speed and explosive power. “Nutrients that we take in through our diet such as carbohydrates and fats are broken down and the energy released from the breakdown of these fuels is used to make ATP in the presences of oxygen. As nitric oxide levels increase, less oxygen is required to produce ATP reducing the oxygen cost of exercise,” says Ivy. And therefore, along with greater ATP production, less energy is required to sustain the same level of effort while you are working out. And finally, nitric oxide may improve recovery between training sessions and allow you to exercise at a higher intensity before fatigue sets in.
Go Red for Heart Health
Dietary nitrates from beetroot juice and green leafy vegetables have other, more profound, benefits for your body aside from affecting your training and sports performance. Consistent intake can help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel functioning. Research also shows dietary nitrates may improve artery health by decreasing inflammation, platelets clumping together (a step in the formation of blood clots) and artery stiffness (stiff arteries do not easily expand to accommodate increases in blood flow, which may occur when blood pressure increases). With aging we aren’t able to produce as much nitric oxide, which may make regular consumption of nitrate-rich foods even more important to support nitric oxide levels in the body.
Don’t Confuse Beets with Similar Sounding Compounds
Though beets and therefore beetroot juice are nitric oxide boosters, you won’t want to confuse them with another nitric oxide booster— l-arginine. Beets and other nitrate-rich vegetables work through the nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway— one that functions when oxygen isn’t as readily available and therefore when you are sucking wind during a fitness class or doing intervals while spinning. L-arginine works through a very different nitric oxide boosting pathway, one that requires the presence of enzymes and oxygen and therefore isn’t effective when you are exercising at a very high intensity.
Beets and other vegetables rich in dietary inorganic nitrate are also not the same as nitrite salts (typically sold over the Internet), which can be harmful, even deadly in low doses. Also, organic nitrates and nitrites are totally different than the inorganic nitrates found in beets and green leafy vegetables. Organic nitrates and nitrites are potent vasodilators (substances that open blood vessels) found in the drugs nitroglycerin and amyl nitrite and should only be prescribed and used under the care of a medical doctor.
How Much is Enough?
Research studies show 16 ounces of beetroot juice (equivalent to approximately 300-500 mg nitrate) consumed daily, three hours before exercise, for a period of several days will effectively increase your body’s production of nitric oxide so you notice a benefit while training. According to a few research studies, single doses of beetroot juice won’t make a dent in your training.
If you are loading up on beets, keep in mind that you need the bacteria in your mouth to convert nitrates to nitrites, the very first step in nitric oxide production. If you use antibacterial mouthwash or antibiotics, you’ll kill both bad bacteria and good bacteria and therefore make significantly less nitrite. Of course, you shouldn’t stop using a prescribed antibiotic without your physician’s consent, but antibacterial mouthwash might be optional, so talk to your dentist.
Keep in mind that the amount of dietary nitrate intake varies in beets (as well as other vegetables) based on growing conditions, including the nitrate content of fertilizer used, the level of nitrate in the water supply, soil conditions, time of year and how the vegetables are stored. “There are commercial products on the market that are made from different vegetables that claim to have high nitrate, but they aren’t. Consumers need to do their homework if they are looking for a commercial source of dietary nitrate,” says Ivy.
Though vegetables rich in nitrates are considered safe for healthy individuals, they may turn your urine and stools red (don’t worry, this is harmless). However, people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease should of course tell their cardiologist about any dietary changes they plan to make, since certain foods can interact with specific prescription drugs. For instance, while green leafy vegetables are rich in good nutrition and contain nitrates that are important for cardiovascular health, they contain a good amount of vitamin K, a nutrient that can interfere with some blood thinning medications.
You can’t go wrong by picking up those oddly shaped red, yellow and orange bulb-looking veggies tucked away in back of your produce aisle. Beets are a good source of the B vitamin folate and contain more dietary nitrates than any other vegetable. When consumed regularly they may improve your training and also support cardiovascular health.
Beets: Delicious Any Way You Slice Them!
Beets are a very versatile food— their sweet, earthy flavor blends well with a variety of foods and they can be enjoyed raw (shred the pulp and add it to a salad), roasted, sautéed, braised (i.e. boiled), pickled and juiced.
Beets will stain your hands and anything else they touch. So either use disposable kitchen gloves when you’re handling them or just be aware the palms of your hands will be stained red. Washing your hands right away will of course minimize some of the staining but definitely won’t wash it all off. Also keep in mind that eating beets may stain your urine red (another harmless side effect).
Roasted Beet Salad
Makes 3 servings
The sweet tastes of beets blends well with the peppery bite of arugula.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice off the tops and bottoms of the beets and discard. Peel the skin off with a vegetable peeler. Cut beets in 1- to 1.5-inch chunks. Place beets in a bowl and toss with olive oil to lightly coat. Cover a baking sheet with foil and place cut beets on the foil-lined sheet. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, turning over twice so they cook evenly and are tender throughout. Remove from oven and let cool. Place arugula on each plate and top with beets. Sprinkle aged balsamic vinegar onto beets and top with feta cheese.
Beet Orange Juice
Makes 2 servings
Blender or food processor
Fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth
Pancake flipper or spatula
Slice off the tops and bottoms of the beets and discard. Peel the skin off with a vegetable peeler. Cut beets into quarters or slices if you have a heavy-duty blender (Vitamix or Blendtec for example). Otherwise, dice beets (they are hard so make sure your blender or food processor can handle them). Peel oranges and place in blender or food processor with diced or cut beets on top. If you are incorporating ginger into your shake, peel it, cut it and place on top of beets. Blend or process until liquefied. Place a cheesecloth or fine mess strainer over a bowl and pour the juice over it. Push remaining pulp on top of the cheesecloth or strainer down with the back of a pancake flipper or spatula to get as much juice as possible into the bowl. Discard the remaining pulp and pour your juice into a glass over ice and enjoy!
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Lidder S, Webb AJ. Vascular effects of dietary nitrate (as found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot) via the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):677-96. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04420.x.
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