The good & the not-so-good truth about beets:
benefits, side effects, and a bombshell!
Beets have been a root vegetable staple of human diets for millennia. The roots and leaves of red beets are packed with many nutrients, some of which are not easy to find elsewhere in the plant kingdom. Their deep colors range from ruby red to golden yellow, and their earthy flavor livens up any veggie dish or smoothie. Plus, eating beets regularly can help you feel great, thanks to their powerful effects on health.
Even though beets have substantial health benefits, most of us do not eat enough to experience those advantages. As a result, professional athletes and many fitness enthusiasts rely on beetroot supplements to provide the advantage they're looking for. Unfortunately, not all beet supplements are created equal—more on that below.
This blog will tell you everything you need to know about the benefits of beets and what to look out for when buying regular beets or beet supplements.
What is beetroot?
Beets (A.K.A. red beetroot) are a commonly known member of the amaranth family, which also includes red spinach (contains 5x more powerful nitrates than beets – more on it below), green spinach, and swiss chard. Like these other commonly known veggies, beets are considered a superfood providing high amounts of folate (vitamin B9), potassium, manganese, iron, and vitamin C.
Beets are somewhat high in one other nutrient — inorganic nitrates — which are largely responsible for the performance & heart benefits that many people use beets for.
The roots of beets are eaten whole or taken as a supplement in the form of juice, concentrate, powder, juice powder, or powder extract form.
You must understand the quality and dose of the active ingredients in beet supplements you consume — you might not be getting what you think you are!
Why Are Beets Good For You
Beets are an immensely powerful bioactive. The first documented use of beets in Germany and Italy was for medicinal purposes in the middle ages1
You'll see from this list of benefits that beets still hold the title of a therapeutic plant today.
Although many of the benefits are thanks to the heart-healthy nitrates they provide, the other components of beets also contribute to their health effects. Here are just a few of the benefits of beets supported by research:
•Makes cardio exercise easier by decreasing your "ventilatory threshold"2
•Promote heart health with polyphenol antioxidants and blood flow-regulating nitrates3
•Support recovery thanks to improved oxygenation and nutrient delivery4
•Sharpen cognition due to better brain oxygenation5
•Improve energy because of more efficient mitochondria6
•Increase dietary fiber, which fosters a healthy microbiome and promotes metabolism
•Improve immune power, meaning fewer and shorter cold symptoms7
Beetroot is truly a superfood, but if you want the health benefits seen in research, you have to make sure you're getting the right amounts at the right time. Of course, that's most easily accomplished with a supplement, but again not all supplements are created equal! supplements are created equal!
How Beets Work
Like other nitrate-rich veggies, beets increase nitrate levels in our saliva, which gets converted into nitrates then into nitrites by oral bacteria. Once in your bloodstream and other tissues, those nitrites are converted to nitric oxide, the principal beneficial effect of consuming beets.
Beets boost nitric oxide by providing nitrates. Unlike L-arginine or citrulline amino acids, the amount of nitric oxide you get from plant-based nitrates doesn't have a cap — one reason why plant-based nitrates outperform arginine in head-to-head studies8.
Being a critically important molecule, having healthy nitric oxide levels is essential for the health of many of your bodily systems.
Beets for Brain Function
Oxygenation is critical for brain function, and that's one thing that higher levels of nitric oxide do for your brain.
Brain scan studies show that when you supplement with nitrates, they appear to increase the blood flow to areas of your brain9 that control decision-making and executive function.
When combined with exercise, the benefits may be even more significant; Howard University research shows that nitrates seem to increase blood flow in your entire brain.10
Beets to Support Immune Function
Your immune cells harness nitric oxide to deliver a targeted burst of damaging inflammation to fend off pathogens11. Your immune system's stopping power is due in part to nitric oxide.
In fact, clinical research12 has even shown the positive effects of a nitrate supplement on immune function. For example, supplementing with beet juice was shown to reduce the severity of a typical cold by 26%. In addition, study subjects with baseline low nitric oxide due to asthma saw an even greater benefit!
Beets for Daily Energy
Nitric oxide's primary function is to open up blood vessels to allow for greater blood flow. That's a huge advantage in athletics — it essentially lets you do more with less oxygen.13
That extra blood flow could also help your daily energy levels as well. Additionally, the benefits of nitrates for your mitochondrial efficiency — your ability to turn calories into work — is another energy-enhancing benefit of beets. Having a better functioning immune system and better cognitive function certainly doesn't hurt your daily energy either!
Possible Side Effects Of Beets
- Like any vegetable high in fiber, beets can cause side effects like gas, bloating, and gut pain if you start eating a lot of beets all of a sudden. In my experience, this can usually be managed by just being more moderate in your approach: gradually increase the number of beets you eat.
- You also don't want to eat whole beets or their leaves every single day. Oxalates are a type of anti-nutrient that can leach other nutrients out of your digestive system, and they come in relatively high quantities in beets. Combined with an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, those oxalates can even contribute to kidney stones. Eat an otherwise nutrient-rich diet full of whole foods and give your body time to process and eliminate a high load of oxalates to minimize your risk.
- If you take medication for your heart, talk to your doctor before making changes to the beet supplements you take.
- If you are eating beets daily, you might expect to see red in your urine or stool. This is to be expected, but if it catches you off guard, you can always take a supplemental version.
- Lastly, if you're drinking your nitrates in beetroot juice or beet juice concentrate, you might want to watch your blood sugar! Those products carry a hefty dose of sugar — do you really want to take something that saps your energy when you're trying to promote your health?
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Alternatives to Beets
Whether it's the flavor, a digestion problem, or some other issue, you may need something other than beets. Although nothing provides all the same micronutrients and phytochemicals as beets, other plants can provide many of the benefits.
- Higher amounts of nitrates are in red spinach, arugula, and rhubarb. With nitrates being responsible for some of the performance and health effects of beets, it makes sense that other nitrate sources may provide some of the same benefits. Fortunately, about 20 other ingredients pack in more nitrates than beets, so you won't have to search that far. Some of the top ones are red spinach, arugula, and rhubarb, but check out our complete list on this article: Make The Best Of Your Veggies: Synergy Of Whole-food Nitrate Combinations.
- Betalains in red spinach, dragon fruit, and prickly pear. Beets aren't the only source of betalains, which are partially responsible for beets' positive effects on athletics and health.14
- Other antioxidants in red berries like Aronia berry ("chokecherry"), elderberry, acai, wild blueberries, and others. The highly concentrated anthocyanin antioxidants in berries deliver a knockout punch to oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Aronia berry is one of the most potent antioxidants known today, and it also provides a natural source of nitrates!
- Other micronutrients in green and red leafy vegetables. Other members of the spinach family have a similar spread of health-giving micronutrients like fiber, vitamin E, vitamin K, potassium, magnesium, and others. Spinach, Swiss chard, and Amaranth (i.e., red spinach) are some of the most common alternatives to beets.
- Collard greens, swiss chard, carrots, and broccoli are fiber-rich. Artichokes are among the highest-fiber veggies, at 10 grams for a medium-sized one.
Clearly, other richly-colored superfoods (especially other members of the spinach family) are your best bet in place of beets!
Which Beet Supplements Is Best
The number one question, people ask, is "Which Beet Supplement Is Best?" and the honest answer is the one that:
- Has clinical studies behind that are aligned with your goals & needs.
- Is tested by 3rd party (NSF SPORT) to verify the claims and label accuracy. It must be tested post-production to ensure no harmful contaminants or banned substances are present, regardless of whether the product is 100% organic and made in FDA approved facility.
- Has sufficient amount of nitrates per dose (not the entire container) and other active ingredients that allow you to gain the benefits you are looking for.
Now, let's keep in mind beet supplements come in different forms:
And most, if not all, of these supplements, except for juices, are made of beet powder. Now, here is the kick, the powder can be made from whole beet, fermented beet, beet juice, or even beet concentrate, and the amount of natural nitrates will vary depending on the source the powder was made of. Now, here is another kicker. The source of the powder is one thing, the way the powder was processed is also crucial for the final nutritional value of the beet powder.
For example, air-dried beet powder will most likely contain less nutritional value than a freeze-dried beet powder, during which the beet in itself goes through less of a harmful process and therefore holds higher nutrition value. However, there is something additional and critical to consider. Even though you would buy a freeze-dried beet powder that was made from organic fermented beets, the truth is since beets are inconsistent in nature and cannot be naturally standardized to a higher level than 0.5% - 1.5% of nitrates (without adding any sodium nitrate or nitrites) plain beet powder might not be the best plant-based source of nitrates to support nitric oxide.
And unless your beet supplement is standardized to nitrates levels, like for example, red spinach extract is (9%) — meaning each batch is guaranteed to contain a certain level of active components — you really have no idea how much nitrate it is providing, and levels can vary by ten-fold because beets are very inconsistent in nature.
What Do Companies Do To Spike The Nitrates Levels In Beet Products?
Most of them add synthetics to increase the nitrate standardization, and clinical testing tells us that naturally, beets alone do not have higher standardization than 0.5% - 1.5% of nitrates. Therefore, if you see a company stating their beet powder is standardized to more than 1.5% of nitrates, and they do not have other plant-based ingredients that could increase nitrate levels, it might be worth checking the supplement facts to see if any ingredients like sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and others are used to spike the nitrate levels.
And if you are looking to increase your nitric oxide levels with plant-based ingredients, plain beet powder might not be your best choice.
Like I mentioned above, beet juice & beet juice concentrate often can contain higher levels of nitrates than beet powders or powder from beet juice, which is better, but also come with a hefty dose of sugar. And your connective tissues (bones, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and more), heart, and gut do not thrive on sugar. Unless you're competing at a highly demanding athletic event (and burning through glucose faster than you can make it), the high sugar content of beetroot juice probably means it should be saved for special occasions.
What to look out for when buying beet products
When you're looking for a beet product to supplement with, make sure you're looking for a few key things to get the benefits you're looking for.
- First thing's first: the dose is essential. 300-600mg of nitrates is a typical dose seen in supplement research studies. It is generally taken 1 to 3 hours before and or after physical activity for multiple days leading up to an event. When you take beet products for your heart health & overall wellness, the timing of consumption doesn’t matter as much - you can consume it any time.
- Are there any clinical tests or human studies done with that specific beet supplement? As I shared previously, each beet product will most likely have a different standardization of nitrates, and that means each beet product will not give you the same results - most likely, it won’t.
- Next, make sure to check if the beet powder is standardized for nitrates and if any sodium nitrates and or nitrites were added to spike the levels. If you want only plant-based nitrates to support your nitric oxide levels, beet powder alone might not be your best choice.
- Equally important is the presence of quality certification. Why does this matter? If the supplement did not go through a rigorous testing protocol as a finished product, you do not know what’s inside and if any contaminants and banned substances were part of the production and ended up in the product. Unfortunately, only a few companies in the USA are testing finished supplements. Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG) and National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), which has internationally recognized testing protocol for supplements taken by elite athletes- NSF-Sport. These two 3rd party testing companies are the best when it comes to testing quality, consistency, and accuracy. I would not recommend settling for less!
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- Red beets provide nitrates (which get turned into nitrites and then nitric oxide) as well as fiber and other plant-based polyphenol antioxidants.
- Beets and beet supplements have been shown in clinical research to support heart, brain, and immune health.
- You can find all kinds of beet supplements in the supplement aisle, but only standardized, certified supplements that provide a clinically proven dose will do what you want them to do.
- Side effects of eating too many beets at once include gas, gut discomfort, and red urine or stool. Taking too high a dose of a beet supplement can cause lowered blood pressure – watch out, if you already have low blood pressure.
- Alternatives to beets generally include dark red and green leafy vegetables, polyphenol antioxidant sources, and other sources of natural plant-based nitrates.
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This content is for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute the practice of any professional healthcare service, INCLUDING the giving of medical advice. No provider-patient relationship is formed. The use of this information, and the materials linked to this content is at the user's own risk. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should abide by the advice of their healthcare provider, and should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have.