It's beet season in our neighbor's garden. (Hint, hint...yes, I love homegrown beets!)
We call them "beets" here in the U.S. and Canada. In Britain, they are more accurately referred to as "beetroot" since a beet is actually the edible taproot that grows under the ground. Beet greens (the part that grows above the ground) are also edible and highly nutritious.
What are beets good for, besides turning our urine and stool red when we eat them? (This is harmless, by the way.)
According the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, beets are one of the richest food sources of inorganic nitrate. And that's not as scary as it may sound.
In the body, nitrate changes into nitric oxide, a substance that helps relax our arteries. That makes blood, oxygen and nutrients flow more easily to our muscles as well as our brains. Some (but not all) clinical trials have found that beet juice (about 2 cups) helped improve endurance and performance when consumed about 2 to 3 hours before exercise in recreational cyclists, runners, rowers and swimmers. For some unknown reason, these benefits have not been seen as often in highly trained athletes.
There's another important benefit of consuming nitrate-rich foods like beets, arugula, bok choy, lettuce and spinach. The nitric oxide formed from the nitrates in these foods helps bring blood pressure down. A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that nitrate-rich foods lowered blood pressure just as effectively as drinking beet juice.
And here's good news, especially if you have diabetes. Beets are categorized as "non-starchy" vegetables. That means they are low in carbohydrates and high in beneficial dietary fiber as well as many other important nutrients.
Certain substances in beets may be a concern for some people, however. Beets as well as beet greens are high in oxalates, natural substances that increase the risk for kidney stones in people who may be susceptible to this malady, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Eat beets and beet greens raw or cooked. Just remember to wash them thoroughly and remove their rather tough outer skin. Grate fresh beets into salads or soups. Or make your own beet juice: Finely grate a beet and squeeze the gratings through clean cheesecloth.
Cooked beets are best roasted, sauteed or microwaved. (Drowning them in cooking water can cause the loss of valuable nutrients.)
Store fresh beets in a plastic bag (perforated to allow some air) placed in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Experts say they will keep for 10 days if kept cool this way.
(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of "Quinn-Essential Nutrition" (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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