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Beet the Clock

Submitted By Amy Sercel

Edited By Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

If you have ever bought bacon or sausage, you’ve probably seen packages labeled “Nitrate Free.”  Nitrates are sometimes added to processed meats to help them last longer.  When eaten in the large amounts added to processed meats, nitrates have been associated with a variety of cancers.1 Small amounts of nitrates also occur naturally in fruits and vegetables.  When eaten at these levels (up to 10 milligrams per pound of body weight), nitrates have not been associated with any negative health impacts.1 In fact, naturally occurring nitrates may help improve your athletic performance!

Beets are one of the most significant sources of naturally occurring nitrates, with a 3½ ounce serving containing about 250 milligrams.  You can eat beets by boiling or roasting them, or you can juice them and drink the product.  The nutrients in beets are concentrated when they are juiced, so beetroot juice contains more nitrates, vitamins, and minerals than whole beets.  On the other hand, beetroot juice does not contain any fiber, but a cup of whole beets provides about 12% of your daily fiber requirement.2

Because of their high nitrate content, many studies have looked at the impact of eating beets on athletic performance.  In one study, healthy, athletic adults ate 5 ounces of roasted beets about an hour before running 5 kilometers.  In the end, they finished their run an average of 41 seconds faster and felt that they had used less effort than when they ran without eating beets first.3 In another study, healthy adults were able to bicycle at their peak exertion for an average of 15 seconds longer after drinking beetroot juice than the placebo.  Their systolic blood pressure, or the top number of their blood pressure reading, was also significantly lower.4 High systolic blood pressure is linked with increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, so these results suggest that beetroot juice might benefit heart health in addition to athletic performance.5

People managing chronic diseases may also benefit from beets.  In one study, people with heart failure, a disease that reduces exercise tolerance, drank a 2.3-ounce supplement of beetroot juice every day for a week.  Study participants’ systolic blood pressure was significantly reduced both at rest and after exercise, and their endurance levels improved.6 In a similar study, patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease also experienced reduced systolic blood pressure and increased endurance after drinking 2.3 ounces of beetroot juice before exercise.7 In the body, nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, a compound responsible for relaxing the blood vessels.  It is likely that eating beets reduced systolic blood pressure because participants’ blood vessels were relaxed, allowing the blood to flow through them more easily and reducing the force of the blood as it flowed through the blood vessels.

In all of these studies, people ate beets or beetroot juice between 2 hours and 45 minutes before exercise.  If you are interested in learning whether beets will improve your athletic performance, there are many ways to add them to your diet!  To start out, try this recipe for Ginger-Beet Juice, or make this delicious Beet Salad with Goat Cheese.  Full of fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and folate,2 beets are a nutritious addition to any meal pattern regardless of whether your goal is to improve athletic performance or to increase your vegetable intake.

References:

  1.  R.D BW. Sodium Nitrite & Cancer. LIVESTRONG.COM. http://www.livestrong.com/article/433933-sodium-nitrite-cancer/. Accessed June 6, 2016.
  2.  What Are the Benefits of Beet Juice Vs. Cooked Beets? http://healthyliving.azcentral.com/benefits-beet-juice-vs-cooked-beets-17701.html. Accessed June 6, 2016.
  3.  Murphy M, Eliot K, Heuertz RM, Weiss E. Whole Beetroot Consumption Acutely Improves Running Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(4):548-552. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2011.12.002.
  4.  Thompson KG, Turner L, Prichard J, et al. Influence of dietary nitrate supplementation on physiological and cognitive responses to incremental cycle exercise. Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2014;193:11-20. doi:10.1016/j.resp.2013.12.015.
  5.  Borghi C, Dormi A, L’Italien G, et al. The relationship between systolic blood pressure and cardiovascular risk–results of the Brisighella Heart Study. J Clin Hypertens Greenwich Conn. 2003;5(1):47-52.
  6.  Eggebeen J, Kim-Shapiro DB, Haykowsky M, et al. One Week of Daily Dosing With Beetroot Juice Improves Submaximal Endurance and Blood Pressure in Older Patients With Heart Failure and Preserved Ejection Fraction. JACC Heart Fail. doi:10.1016/j.jchf.2015.12.013.
  7.  Berry MJ, Justus NW, Hauser JI, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation improves exercise performance and decreases blood pressure in COPD patients. Nitric Oxide. 2015;48:22-30. doi:10.1016/j.niox.2014.10.007.

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