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Run faster, boost energy by eating beets

BY JENNIFER MOTL

The lowly beet became the sweetheart vegetable of the summer Olympics, with endurance athletes from several countries guzzling beet juice.

Several studies over the last few years show that eating beets or drinking beet juice daily can make athletes faster. Beets are a rich source of natural nitrates, which the body converts to nitric oxide, which aids blood flow and the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. In other words, beets may help athletes go farther with less effort.

Taking artificial nitrates did not enhance athletic performance, in at least one study. And the scientific literature is full of warnings about dangerous side effects from nitrate pills, whereas no danger comes from normal intake of veggies. That may be because vegetables contain antioxidants and vitamins that are also helpful, according to Belgian scientists.

Scientists say eating beets can boost your energy. Volunteers who ate a little over a cup of baked beets about an hour before a 5K race shaved about a minute off their time and reported feeling less tired. They ran faster after eating beets than after eating cranberry relish, which is as red as beets but low in nitrates. That’s according to research at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

A Dutch study found similar results with cyclists. The volunteers biked a 10K race faster and used less oxygen, a measure of how efficiently they exercised. They drank 5 ounces of beet juice concentrate for six days before the races.

A more intensive British study found even stronger results. Volunteers guzzled half a liter (about 18 ounces) of beet juice daily for six days. Their blood pressure dropped five points, and they found it easier to walk and run on a treadmill. In fact, they were able to sprint 15 percent longer before becoming exhausted.

Swimmers were able to hold their breath 11 percent longer after drinking beet juice. That may translate to faster times in short races, according to scientists.

Although beets are perhaps the most studied for athletes, many other veggies are rich in nitrates. Rhubarb, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, pumpkin, radishes, green beans, celery, fennel and radishes are all very high in nitrates.

Leafy veggies are particularly good sources. These include beet greens, endive, all lettuces (even iceberg), escarole, arugula, Swiss chard and spinach. So, consider adding some of these veggies to your menu as well.

BEETS CAN BE BEAUTIFUL

Beets get a bad rap, probably because canned beets, like many canned veggies, can be soggy and gross. And raw beets loom lumpy and intimidating.

But simple preparation, such as boiling or roasting beets and peeling and slicing them, reveals their gorgeous ruby-colored centers. Beets are one of the prettiest veggies around, and they are sweet yet a tiny bit earthy, an intriguing combination.

If you want to try them at your farmers market, beets are in season through November, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. And though beets are not as popular as, say, tomatoes, beets can be delicious when made right.

If you’re new to beets, try to buy smaller, baby beets and roast them to bring out their natural sweetness. Here’s a quick recipe:

  • Preheat the oven to 400.
  • Trim off the leafy beet tops, wash the beet roots and toss them in a bowl with olive oil.
  • Transfer to a baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until tender.
  • Let the beets cool and slip off the skins with your fingers. Slice and serve.
  • Roasted beets are gorgeous and delicious served with a tossed salad and goat cheese.

Or, use a grater to shred the roasted beets. Then, mix equal parts shredded beets and shredded carrots, and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Top with fresh parsley. This simple but intensely colorful and flavorful recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, “Simply in Season” by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman–Wert.

That same cookbook has a great recipe for borscht, a lovely beet soup that is considered comfort food throughout Eastern Europe. It’s traditionally made with finely chopped onions, potatoes, carrots, beets and beef or chicken.

FOR THE FAINT OF HEART

Perhaps you are convinced you don’t like beets. Try blending them into other foods.

You may not realize that red velvet chocolate cake can be made with puréed beets instead of artificial red dye. And you can’t taste the beets in the cake, although you probably won’t get a very big serving of beets this way.

If you prefer to drink your beets, you can toss the roasted beets in the blender to make a smoothie. Add raspberries or banana and orange or apple juice for a flavor boost. This makes for a glorious fuchsia-colored cocktail.

So, drink up. Beets can taste great and help you race faster, too.

Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at healthyliving@free lancestar.com.

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