Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Back in 2006, I wrote the first edition of a book called The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. I included beets, a food that I have long loved and appreciated. But after a couple of decades of practice as a nutritionist, I have to admit I haven’t found too many people who actually like them – borscht lovers being a notable exception.
But that was then, and this is now. In the ten years between the first edition of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth and the anniversary edition a decade later, beets have become the vitamin D of the food world. They’re trendy, popular and very, very good for you.
In fact, go into any supplement store and you’re likely to find an entire shelf devoted just to beet or beetroot supplements. Athletes in particular appear to be scarfing them down seemingly as fast as manufacturers can make them.
So, what gives? Why have beets suddenly – and deservedly, I might add – taken on the superfood status?
The answer lies in two words: nitric oxide.
What’s so important about nitric oxide?
Before I explain what nitric oxide can do for you (spoiler alert: a lot), let me explain what the experts think of nitric oxide. It was cited as “molecule of the year” in 1992 by Science magazine. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the researchers who discovered its role as a signalling molecule, vital for cardiovascular health. And you’re about to find out why it’s become such a strong-selling supplement for athletes and weekend warriors.
Nitric oxide as a molecule is simplicity itself. Join one atom of oxygen with one atom of nitrogen, and voilà! But what those atoms do is anything but simple.
In a word, nitric oxide functions as a vasodilator, meaning it opens up or dilates blood vessels. That’s why its precursors – substances that transform into nitric oxide quickly, like nitroglycerin – are used as emergency treatment in heart disease.
As nitric oxide opens up constricted blood vessels it can eliminate angina, an awful symptom of heart disease that causes crushing pain in the chest associated with “clogged” arteries. Nitro opens those babies right up.
Nitric oxide’s ability to open up arteries and increase blood (and oxygen) flow is exactly the reason it’s so popular with athletes these days.
Every endurance athlete I know wants more energy. They want to know they’re up to the task of getting through the event. Their “infrastructure” – what’s going to get them through the day – is efficient oxygen delivery to their muscles and brain.
And that means relaxed, not constricted blood vessels. Would water flow freely through a kinked hose? For an athlete, open blood vessels and a healthy heart to pump blood through them are key.
And that brings us to beets and the nitric oxide connection.
Nitrates: The forgotten nutrient
With all the “no nitrates!” labels in the meat department of every grocery store, it’s no wonder we think all nitrates are bad. But that’s a myth.
One of the few times nitrates are a problem is when they’re combined with two things: amino acids and high heat. That’s why you don’t want bacon with nitrates. Protein is made up of amino acids, and bacon is generally pan fried at high heat. But the main dietary source of nitrates is not bacon. It’s actually vegetables, by a country mile.
And beets are absolutely loaded with them.
Which, as you can probably guess, makes them a wonderful source of raw materials for the body to make nitric oxide with.
If you want to see how this connection is being marketed, take a look at any of the excellent commercials for a product like SuperBeets, which shows exercising athletes of all varieties happily reporting more energy and endurance. As a rule, commercials like this are simply good marketing and certainly aren’t taken seriously as scientific “proof.” Nonetheless, the benefits these folks report is exactly what coaches and clinicians are telling me they’re seeing, and exactly what would be predicted from the metabolic actions of nitrates and nitric oxide (even though the folks in the commercial are undoubtedly paid endorsers).
But wait! There’s more!
As if by providence, the day I wrote this article, a new study came out that made headlines in NutraIngredients, a nutrition industry newsletter: Beetroot juice benefits brain and heart through oral microbiome modulation.
The study found that the inorganic nitrate in beets is catnip to beneficial species of oral bacteria. When you feed those particular bacterial species beetroot juice it’s like giving a four-year-old a freshly baked cookie.
In the study, 26 healthy people aged 70 to 80 took part in two ten-day supplementation periods. During one period, all the subjects drank a nitrate-free juice twice daily; during the other, they drank nitrate-rich beetroot juice twice each day. After the beetrooot juice session, 10 strains of beneficial bacteria associated with good vascular and cognitive health increased. Meanwhile, lower levels of 14 other strains associated with inflammation and infection, were found.
Many oral bacteria help turn nitrates into nitric oxide, which can help with cognitive and vascular health. This study suggests that nitrate-rich beetroot juice may offer benefits for the heart and brain.
All of this to say that beetroot juice is a great supplement for hard-training athletes but it has enormous potential for everyday folks as well.
There are plenty of ways to eat more beets, whether you’re looking to improve heart and brain health, go the extra mile, or you just plain love ’em. Check out some of our beet-centric recipes: