Beets are among those foods—like broccoli—that some people love with a passion, while others despise them with equal passion. The former group is on to something. And the latter is at risk of missing out. That’s because beets are among nature’s true superfood stars.
Fiber and So Much More
These hardy, ruby-red root vegetables are packed with potent nutrients that have been shown, especially in recent years, to confer significant potential health benefits. As with many fruits and vegetables, some of this beneficial effect is due to the presence of colorful compounds. Indeed, a recent article in the journal Nutrients noted: “…the betalain pigments, display potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemo-preventive activity in vitro and in vivo.” In plain language, this means that some of the pigments in beets have been shown to reduce inflammation, neutralize free radicals, and possibly prevent processes related to the development of cancer.
Beets are an excellent source of the essential vitamin, folate, and the trace element, manganese. Of course, virtually all root vegetables feature generous quantities of beneficial dietary fiber, too. Most people realize that consuming fiber, consisting of soluble and insoluble forms, is one of the chief benefits of eating vegetables or fruits in general. That’s because dietary fiber plays an important, if not crucial, role in keeping the digestive tract healthy and helping food waste move efficiently through the system. Not to put too fine a point on it, but fiber is essential for healthy bowel movements.
But what many don’t realize is that dietary fiber does far more than simply providing moisture-absorbing bulk to stools. Not to minimize the benefits of healthy bathroom habits, but there’s so much more to fiber. The collection of friendly microorganisms living in the human digestive tract, for instance, play a previously under-appreciated role in an array of important aspects of health. In recent years, the diversity of a person’s microbiome, as this community of microbes has come to be called, has been linked to everything from one’s mental and emotional health, to the strength and adaptability of the immune system. That’s right. Having the “right” microbial passengers can directly improve everything from mood to your risk of becoming obese or developing type 2 diabetes, to your ability to fight off illness and infection.
And one way to ensure you are cultivating and nourishing the “right” kinds of beneficial microbes is to pay attention to what you’re feeding them. Of course, when you’re hungry, and reaching for food, you’re not likely to be thinking about a collection of invisible—but not insignificant—microbes. But perhaps you should. That’s because the most beneficial gut microbes eagerly anticipate the dietary fiber you consume in the form of vegetables, such as beetroot. In contrast, research shows that diets high in fat or sugar tend to encourage the growth of less desirable microbes, which may, in turn, adversely affect your health.
Nitric Oxide and the Cardiovascular System
Of course, beets are also a great source of nutrients that directly benefit you: such as vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds (phytonutrients) such as dietary nitrates. The latter is especially notable. Beetroot is among the richest sources of these often-overlooked compounds, which provide the raw materials the body needs to generate an important signaling molecule, called nitric oxide (NO). NO is extraordinarily important for the maintenance of cardiovascular health.
That’s because NO serves to signal involuntary smooth muscle cells to relax. These tiny cells line the body’s arteries and have a big impact on everything from your capacity for exercise, to the state of your blood pressure. Relaxation of these smooth muscle cells is important, because when they contract, the blood vessels they encircle also contract. As the diameter of a given blood vessels decreases, the pressure of the blood within that vessel necessarily increases. In other words, you blood pressure goes up.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is among the chief risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Accordingly, doctors know that keeping blood pressure in check is a crucial goal for the prevention of heart attack and stroke. Good blood flow and normal blood pressure are also associated with better sexual function, as too little available NO is often associated with erectile dysfunction (ED).
Recently, researchers around the world have been investigating the effects of dietary nitrate intake—from foods such as beetroot—on exercise performance. Most have concluded that supplemental dietary nitrates do, in fact, affect one’s ability to exercise harder and longer. Other studies have shown that raw beet juice consumption is associated with decreased inflammation in the body, as well as reduced blood pressure. Researchers have even suggested that beet juice consumption is linked to improved cognitive performance, due to enhanced blood flow within the brain.
And, finally, a recent controlled study published in the respected medical journal, Hypertension, concluded that drinking raw beetroot juice daily is linked to a significant, “sustained blood pressure lowering” among patients with high blood pressure.
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