News from Sweden by way of England: a glass of beet juice could help you work out longer and feel better. It can make those fast-twitch muscles more powerful, too.
Somewhere in the world, there must be six people besides me who are thinking, “Wow! Beet juice! Hooray, I’ll take two glasses!”
My husband jibes me for ordering from restaurant menus based on the side dishes. Pork or venison tonight? I’ll take the one that comes with beets, please.
This beet-juice research should be in the “news you can use “category, but for one problem. Much to my surprise, most people hate beets. Ranker puts them third on the list of most disliked vegetables. Evidently, people would far rather eat parsnips and okra. Amazing.
The Swedish research happened in 2007 based on a comparison of triathletes and endurance cyclists who took either sodium nitrate or table salt before a workout. In 2009, researchers in England found the effect puzzling enough to run their own experiments. Instead of a chemical, they used beet juice because beets are naturally high in sodium nitrate. Beet juice was a winner. Cyclists who imbibed could pedal longer before reaching exhaustion. Their systolic blood pressure dropped 6 points. And their oxygen demand fell an impressive 19%.
Even with this proof, there was no worldwide breakout of beet-juice drinks crowding your grocery store. Beet juice never reached the dizzy heights of pomegranate juice.
I suspect a cadre of beet haters suppressed it. The glory of beets stayed buried for a long time, though there are many elite and serious athletes who do swear by it.
Then in 2018, Andrew Jones and team at the University of Exeter in England published an extensive review on dietary nitrates and physical performance in the Annual Review of Nutrition. Beets were the main focus because they are an abundant natural source of sodium nitrate.
Sodium nitrate is one of those chemicals we have all been warned to avoid. It was supposed to be the devil in processed meats, a carcinogen. It is now believed that the cancer risk exists, but was overstated.
Apart from that, we need sodium nitrate, and it is common in the foods we eat—especially spinach, arugula, chard, and beets. One reason to seek out the chemical is that it is involved in producing nitric oxide (NO) which our bodies must have. NO helps keep blood vessels dilated, helps regulate glucose and calcium, and plays a role in reenergizing mitochondria and muscle contraction.
Beets boost NO and have more benefits than the first Swedish research team realized. They focused on elite endurance athletes. More recent research suggests the benefits to that group can be iffy, but the rest of us may benefit a lot. Beets seem to have an even greater ability to support fast-twitch muscles. That’s useful for sudden bursts of activity, such as sprints or sports that require explosive movements, like soccer. Or jumping.
The most exciting thing about the work being done on beet juice and nitrates is that they may particularly help older people overcome exercise intolerance. The inability to exercise hard and long is not just a “use it or lose it” matter. It’s caused by low NO levels in the body as we age along with less capacity to turn natural arginine into useful nitrates.
A couple of glasses of beet juice could help. And if drinking beet juice doesn’t appeal, eating one cup of spinach or beets should have the same effect.
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