Written by Nutritional Therapist Kate Fisk DipCNM, mBANT, mANP, rCNHC
This vibrant vegetable's ancestry goes back to prehistoric times, when its wild relative, the sea beet, grew along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Recognised by the ancient Greeks as a culinary and medicinal herb, the Romans were the first to cultivate it for its root.
Often overlooked by more exotic 'superfoods', the beetroot has a lot going for it due to its high nitrate content and the fact that it’s also a rich source of lots of beneficial compounds, such as those that give beetroot its distinctive colour.
So, what are the top 10 benefits of beetroot?
1. Its nutrient profile is very strong
Loaded with lots of beneficial vitamins and minerals, this earthy-tasting vegetable has an excellent nutritional profile.
Both the leaves and the roots are exceptionally high in folate. Needed to support our cells' growth and repair, folate also plays a crucial role in our immune and nerve function. Just one raw medium beetroot will provide 44% of the recommended daily intake.
That same beetroot will also provide us with 12% of the recommended daily intake of manganese. This mineral plays a critical role in bone formation and supports antioxidant activity in the body.
Beetroot also contributes to our daily potassium, magnesium, copper, iron, vitamin C and zinc intake.
2. It's a powerful anti-inflammatory
Beetroots are one of the few plants that contain betalains: pigments which give red and yellow beetroots their distinctive colour. Betalains, it turns out, have the potential to reduce inflammation in the body.
Inflammation should be a short-term response by our immune system to any damage to the body, which helps protect us against infection. However, if inflammation persists, it can become a problem and is recognised as a contributing factor in most chronic conditions, including heart disease.
Several preliminary studies show the anti-inflammatory effects of beetroot juice may be better than many synthetic anti-inflammatory drugs, including Ibuprofen, which are known to have unwelcome side effects.
3. It's an antioxidant
Free radicals are produced naturally in the body as by-products of chemical reactions. And unhealthy lifestyle factors such as smoking, stress, and poor diet can ramp up their production. Free radicals, if left unchecked, can end up causing damage, known as oxidative stress, which plays a role in many chronic health conditions.
Antioxidants can stop free radicals in their tracks, and we need to ensure we have a steady supply of them to keep things in balance.
Studies have shown beetroot juice to have a greater antioxidant capacity than most other fruit and vegetable juices - only pomegranate came higher.
4. Supports healthy blood pressure and heart health
High blood pressure, often symptomless, is a significant risk factor for heart disease and other conditions affecting the blood supply to the brain, such as strokes and aneurysms. It’s estimated to affect 1 in 3 adults in the UK.
Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and being overweight can all contribute. In addition to tackling these lifestyle factors, drinking beetroot juice could be a valuable tool in helping to lower blood pressure.
Beetroots contain high levels of nitrates, which, when eaten, are converted to nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide relaxes our veins and arteries, allowing blood to flow freely and so reduces blood pressure.
Researchers, funded by the British Heart Foundation, found that drinking just 250ml of beetroot juice every day significantly lowered blood pressure over the four-week duration of the study.
Never stop taking medication prescribed to lower blood pressure without talking to your GP.
5. Supports liver function
We ask a lot of our liver: it works constantly to remove potentially damaging toxins and produce bile which helps us digest fats. It also breaks down hormones, stores essential minerals and vitamins, and plays a role in energy production. So, if our liver is struggling, it will impact every other system of our body.
Compounds in beetroot have been shown to support the liver in neutralising and removing harmful toxins from the body and helping prevent liver damage.
6. Improves athletic performance and supports post-exercise recovery
When it comes to exercise, beetroot does a pretty good job of improving both endurance AND performance. For example, athletes drinking beetroot juice up to a couple of hours before training can run set distances in shorter times AND train for longer before tiring.
Additionally, athletes drinking 250ml of beetroot juice after intense training recovered much faster than those who didn't.
All this is thanks to the nitrates in beetroot causing our blood flow to improve, meaning oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to muscles more efficiently during exercise.
7. Supports brain health
Unfortunately, as we age, our brains can get smaller. Not only that but the blood flow to our brains decreases. Together these contribute to reduced cognitive function which means your memory won't work as well as it did, and you may find it harder to remember or learn new things.
Older studies indicate that daily supplementation of 450ml of beetroot juice increased blood flow to the part of the brain we rely on for some of our memory functions, and also the ability to switch between tasks quickly.
Lots more research is needed in this area, but studies are currently underway to assess the effects of drinking beetroot juice on the blood supply to the brain.
Best things to do to slow down age-related brain shrinkage? Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, maintain healthy blood pressure, avoid processed foods, don't smoke and avoid drinking alcohol to excess.
8. Blood sugar regulation
We want our blood sugar levels to stay as stable as possible, but they can be affected by all sorts of things, including stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet. Erratic levels can lead to inflammation and illness.
Drinking 225ml of beetroot juice has been shown to help keep our blood sugar on an even keel after eating, due to the synergetic effect of the beneficial compounds it contains.
9. Supports friendly bacteria
Beetroot contains glutamic acid. This amino acid is essential for the health and maintenance of our gut. Once eaten, it breaks down and forms glutamine, which fuels the cells in our intestines, helping to maintain a robust and selective barrier between our guts and the rest of our body.
They also contain a lot of fibre, which, as it passes through our intestines, provides food for our gut bacteria. The thousands of friendly bacteria in our digestive tract perform many essential functions that help us stay healthy. These include helping with digestion, removing toxins, vitamin production, keeping potentially harmful bacteria in check, immune support and keeping our moods balanced. So we need to do what we can to keep them happy!
A study by the University of Exeter in 2021 found that healthy people who drank 70ml of beetroot juice twice a day, compared to those who didn't, ended up with higher levels of the oral bacteria associated with good brain health and lower levels of the bacteria associated with inflammation.
10. They're versatile
Beetroot can be juiced, steamed, roasted (with goat’s cheese, yum), grated raw into salads, pickled, fermented or blended in a soup. They can even be used to add texture and bump up the nutrient density of deserts, such as beetroot brownies.
To preserve their nutrients, the best way to prepare beetroots is to eat them raw, or lightly steamed. Dressing with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon enhances their flavour. It also helps absorb fat-soluble nutrients such as carotenoids and vitamins E and K, as well as iron, which they contain.
Anything else I need to know?
Beetroots, and especially beetroot leaves, which can be cooked like spinach, are high in oxalates, a naturally occurring compound. High levels of oxalates can trigger kidney stone formation in susceptible people, so they might be best avoided if there’s a history of this condition.
Oxalates can also be a problem for people with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and malabsorption issues such as coeliac disease and Crohn's. Beetroots are pretty high in fructans, so if you know that this particular FODMAP causes you issues, stick to eating no more than the equivalent of 2 slices at any one time.
And lastly, beetroot can make your pee turn red! Officially known as beeturia, this harmless condition only affects about 15% of the population.