Beet – Getting to the root of its nutritional benefits

The latest in a long line of newly discovered sports elixirs to grab the sporting community’s attention is beet juice, called beetroot juice in the UK. Prior to this, the humble beet was consigned to the salad side plate or used as a garnish. In the sporting arena, Paralympic champion and Commonwealth Games' gold medallist David Weir CBE (also known as the Werewolf) is a beetroot evangelist, attributing his success to the nitrate power of blood red juice.


And the Werewolf is far from alone in his reverence for beets; Rugby chap Ben Foden, butterfly swimmer Ian Hulme and marathon runners Helen Decker and Paula Radcliff are also converts and advocates.


The beet’s recent elevation to a sports enhancing beverage is due to the very high level of nitrate found in the juice. The beneficial effects of beets are produced by nitric oxide, which has well-known cardiovascular benefits. The body converts nitrate found in foods like beets, into nitric oxide. The process involves friendly bacteria that live in the mouth converting the nitrate that leaks into the saliva as the beets are consumed, to nitrite. Nitrite is a related ion of nitrate with one fewer oxygen atom that is then converted elsewhere in the body to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide (NO) is a powerful vasodilator - it causes the walls of blood vessels to open, allowing more oxygen to get through to the muscles.


The key researcher into beet juice’s effect on athletes is Andy Jones, a Professor of sports science at Exeter University in England. Professor Jones became well known in sports science circles through his work with marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe. (Incidentally Professor Jones is so well known for his work on beets that his Twitter handle is @andybeetroot!)


According to Professor Jones, nitric oxide has two major effects on an athlete. “The first is that it causes blood vessels to dilate, so you can provide more blood through them,” says Jones. “Simultaneously, it seems to make the mitochondria more efficient, so they are able to create the same energy while consuming less oxygen. So you really have two things happening. Lower oxygen cost because the mitochondria are more efficient, and then you have a higher oxygen supply – in terms of performance, that’s a pretty good combination.”


Some studies of beets have produced evidence of the strong performance boost for a particular type of event. A study published in the ASCM (please see here) showed that gains of nearly 3% occurred in athletes involved in activities that lasted between five and thirty minutes.


Other findings from studies showed that beet juice increased time to exhaustion: cyclists who drank beet juice could ride 16 per cent longer than without beet juice in their diet; runners who ate baked beets before running a 5 km time trial ran faster; trained divers could hold their breath almost half-a-minute longer if they drank beet juice before their dive; in well-trained rowers, beet juice improved rowing times and endurance.


Although most of the research into beet has been in relation to the performance benefits for elite athletes, recreational athletes and those participating in sports for every day fitness and increased wellbeing can still benefit from including beets in their diet.


Beets contain many health-promoting substances in addition to nitrates, including the antioxidants betalain, resveratrol, and quercetin. As a rich natural source of nitrates, not only do they give exercisers an edge by increasing flow to their limbs during workouts; beet’s also have positive effects on blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Other wellness benefits include:


  • Helping your cardiovascular system: Research shows eating beets reduces the amount of homocysteine, a substance which can contribute to peripheral vascular disease, stroke and heart disease
  • Beets are a great source of natural complex carbohydrates, making them particularly good at reducing hunger and helping individuals to control their food intake, especially if they are trying to lose weight.
  • Beets are high in important minerals including sodium, magnesium, calcium,iron and phosphorus.
  • Beets are full offibre and rich in vitamins including vitamin A, vitamin C, and niacin!
  • The pigment molecule, Betacyanin,which give beets its signature red colour has been shown to guard against cancer


A slightly startling side effect of consuming beets is the colouration of the body’s excretions (faeces and urine) that occurs in some people. This is completely harmless. Large doses of beet juice have also been known to cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort. However, studies have shown a diminishing return when it came to the actual performance boost and that optimum benefits are achieved by drinking about 600 ml of juice. Consequently, there is no need to guzzle it down by the bucket load and this side effect can be easily avoided.


Another concern raised is to do with excessive consumption of nitrates and nitrites being potentially dangerous. The potential risks associated with over consumption of foods like cured meat that contain nitrate doesn’t apply to the nitrate found in vegetables, because they don’t contain amines, which can combine with meat proteins to form compounds called nitrosamines that are known to be carcinogenic.


Drinking beet juice is just one way to include it in your diet. Beets can also be incorporated in to many recipes to add a distinctive sweet flavour that complements savoury dishes and reduces the sugar quantity but maintains the sweetness in cakes and desserts. The web is awash with beet recipes, but a good place to start is the BBC’s good food website, which has a section dedicated to beetroot that contains a good selection of soups, cakes, relishes and main meals to try out.