Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that beets deserve their reputation as a top superfood. That’s because beetroot is a rich source of compounds called dietary nitrates (among other beneficial nutrients).
Nitrates from beetroot are converted in the body to Nitric Oxide (NO). NO is a small, simple molecule. But it is of huge importance to the health and proper functioning of the cardiovascular system. To understand why, it’s helpful to know a bit about the heart and blood vessels.
Foundation of Vibrant Health: the Cardiovascular System
The heart is the body’s single most important muscle. It collects spent blood recirculated from the body’s organs and tissues and pumps it to the lungs for re-oxygenation. From there, blood is returned to the heart and is then forced under pressure through the arteries to all the organs and tissues of the body. Eventually, at the level of tiny vessels called capillaries, spent blood is recollected and returned, through the veins, to the heart to continue this perpetual cycle.
The heart and blood vessels—the cardiovascular system—are sometimes simplistically compared to plumbing. But this model doesn’t account for the changing needs of the body. The body’s cells require considerably less fuel (glucose) and oxygen when one is at rest than when running, for example.
Of course, heart rate can speed up or slow down as needed. But to further enhance the responsiveness of the system, the arteries themselves can be relaxed (increasing blood flow and lowering overall pressure) or constricted (limiting flow and raising blood pressure). This on-demand relaxation/constriction is accomplished by a thin layer of smooth muscle cells surrounding the arteries.
A specialized type of smooth, thin tissue derived from skin cells, called the endothelium, lines the interior of the body’s arteries. NO, generated in the endothelium, is used to signal these muscle cells to relax. This is important, because vessels’ ability to relax and contract readily is a hallmark of excellent cardiovascular health. This elasticity facilitates better exercise and sports performance and even plays a role in healthy sexual function.
Beets, Nitrates and NO
Beets are an excellent source of healthful dietary nitrates. But to maximize the benefits, it’s best to consume beets in the raw state. Research has shown that drinking about 8 ounces of raw beet juice daily can significantly lower blood pressure among people with hypertension (high blood pressure). Not only that, but beetroot juice consumption has been associated with reduced inflammation, as well. For maximum blood pressure lowering, stick to raw beets and/or beetroot juice. That’s not to say that cooked beets aren’t also exceptionally healthful—not to mention delicious.
Recent research examined the effects of raw juice or cooked beets. While raw juice was somewhat more effective at lowering blood pressure, both yielded significant improvements in various markers of inflammation in the body, and better endothelial function.
Should you decide to venture beyond raw beetroot juicing, here are some basic recipes to get you started:
Basic Roasted Beets
• 6-8 medium-size beets
• 1-2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, or parsley leaves
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. black pepper
• 1-2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
• 1-2 Tbs fresh lemon, lime, or orange juice (optional)
• Preheat oven to 400° F (about 204° C)
• Remove tops and roots from beets. (Beet greens can be reserved for sautéing, steaming, etc.) Rinse raw beets to remove sand or dirt.
• Place beets on a large sheet of aluminum foil, then fold over to form a packet.
• Place packet on a sheet pan and roast for 45 minutes to an hour.
• Remove packet, and allow beets to cool enough to handle.
• Once cool, skins should slide off fairly easily. Remove skins, and cut beets into wedges.
• Toss with thyme or other herbs, sea salt and pepper, and olive oil. Add citrus juice, if using.
• Serve warm and enjoy.
Classic Harvard Beets
• 1 lb. beets (about 4-5 medium-size fresh beets, tops and roots removed)
• 1/4 c. water
• 1/4 c. white (or cider) vinegar
• 1/3 c. sugar
• 1 Tbs cornstarch
• 1 Tbs butter
• pinch salt
• 2 whole cloves (optional)
• Pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
• Rinse beets. Place in cold water on stove and bring to a boil. Boil 40-45 minutes. (Alternatively, roast beets in foil; see above).
• Allow beets to cool.
• Remove skins by slipping them off.
• Cut beets into wedges, uniform slices, or dice.
• In saucepan on stove, place water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, spices and salt. Whisk together and bring to a boil over medium heat. Allow to boil for about 30 seconds, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Remove whole cloves. Add freshly cut beets and stir. Serve immediately.
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