Sometimes, the media portray beets as some kind of miracle vegetable.
But just how good for you are they really?
Beets are a type of root vegetable with some interesting potential benefits.
This article will take an in-depth look at beets, their nutrition profile, health benefits, and what the latest science shows.
Nutritional Value of Beets
Beets have a relatively decent nutrient profile.
One cup (136g) provides the following:
One cup provides a total of 58.5 calories (1).
One cup of beets provides a great source of the following vitamins and minerals:
Folate: 148 mcg (37% DV)
Manganese: 0.4mg (22% DV)
One cup of beets provides a reasonable source of the following vitamins and minerals:
Potassium: 442 mg (13% DV)
Vitamin C: 6.7 mg (11% DV)
One cup of beets also provides a minimal amount of the following vitamins and minerals:
Magnesium: 31.3 mg (8% DV)
Iron: 1.1 mg (6% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.1 mg (5% DV)
Copper: 0.1 mg (5% DV)
Phosphorus: 54.4 mg (5% DV)
Sodium: 106 mg (4% DV)
Zinc: 0.5 mg (3%)
Thiamin: 0.0 mg (3% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.1 mg (3% DV)
Calcium: 21.8 mg (2% DV)
Niacin: 0.5 mg (2% DV)
Pantothenic Acid: 0.2 mg (2% DV)
Selenium: 1.0 mcg (1% DV)
Vitamin A: 44.9 IU (1% DV)
Polyphenols and Dietary Nitrate
As with most plant-based foods, micronutrients are not the whole story.
Beets also contain some powerful polyphenols that are beneficial for our health called betalains (2).
There are two types: betanin and betaxanthins.
Beets also contain nitrate. Beets are not unusual in this regard as every vegetable supplies nitrate, but they are one of the most significant dietary sources.
Further, nitrate is metabolized into nitric oxide inside the body. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator that improves blood flow and can reduce blood pressure, and it has several performance benefits too.
The Health Benefits of Beets
In recent years, a large body of research has looked into the positive health benefits of beets and the betalains they contain.
Let’s take a look at a summary of those benefits.
Studies on Beets and the Heart
- Anti-inflammatory and vascular-protective benefits of beets have been confirmed in both animal and human studies.
- Looking solely at the studies in human subjects, it has been shown that beetroot supplementation reduces blood pressure, oxidative stress and systemic inflammation (5).
- The betanin found in beets has demonstrated an inhibitive effect on the production of lipid hydroperoxides in low-density lipoprotein (LDL). In other words, it offers protection against the oxidation of LDL. Oxidized LDL is believed to be one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease (6, 7, 8).
- After ingestion of 100g beetroot, male subjects showed reduced blood pressure, demonstrating that low-dose beetroot has significant hypotensive (lowering blood pressure) effects (9).
Their effect on blood pressure appears to be one of the biggest health benefits of beets.
Studies on Beets and Cancer
There is also a range of data showing that beets and beet supplements have a promising cancer-protective application.
- Beets have significant anti-inflammatory impacts on the body, offering potential roles in the protection against, and treatment of, cancer (10).
- In head-to-head trials against an anti-cancer drug, red beetroot extract decreased the growth rate of cancer cells. The decrease wasn’t to the same extent as the drug provided, but unlike the drug, there were no toxic side-effects (11).
- In animal studies, betalains have radioprotective activity, likely due to the antioxidant capabilities and immune system modulation of red beets (12).
- Studies show that betanin in red beets can induce apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells (13).
The data in regard to beneficial impacts on cancer are far from proven, although the studies suggest beet extracts would at least be helpful in this regard.
Also, these are super-high concentrated extracts of the compounds in beets rather than just the pure vegetable.
Other Studies on Beets
The health benefits of beets have also been linked to possible health improvements applicable to diabetes, mental health, and sports performance.
Clinical trials relating to diabetes are ongoing, but there are some interesting studies as relates to mental health and sports performance.
- Older adults eating a diet high in nitrate from beets have increased blood flow to the frontal lobes of their brain; an area associated with degeneration that leads to dementia (14).
- In a double-blind study, eleven fit participants underwent two 5km separate time trial runs. One was after eating a cranberry relish placebo, and one was after whole beetroot consumption. During the latter part of the run, running velocity was 5% faster, and perceived exertion was lower with beetroot across the participants (15).
What is particularly nice is that several of these studies used a whole food sample of beetroot. That’s real food – not standardized extracts, meaning that the results are similar to what we can expect in real-world terms.
What Form of Beets Can You Eat?
There are many different versions of beets you can buy:
- Fresh beets
- Pickled beets
- Canned beets
- Beet juice
Fresh beets are the best available choice. As with most dietary options, fresh food should always be the priority.
There are also many things you can do with fresh beets. You can roast them alongside some meat; boil; steam; juice; use them in a salad – or even for making a dessert.
Raw beets have a crunchy texture, whereas cooked beets take on a slightly sweeter, softer feeling.
I’ll share some recipes later in the article to show how adaptable they can be.
Can You Eat Raw Beets?
Eating raw beets is no problem. Fresh beets will have more nutrients, and they are especially good for eating as part of a salad.
Are pickled beets good for you too? Sure, they are just beets preserved in salt water.
Are Canned Beets Good For You?
Healthy pickled beets are an excellent choice when they come in a glass jar, but I would recommend avoiding canned beets.
The main reason why is that consumption of canned food increases exposure to BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical that has close links to reproductive problems, cancer, and cardiovascular disease (16, 17, 18, 19, 20).
Glass products may have a slightly higher cost, but they are much better for you.
In short, the health benefits of beets are better without BPA added to the mix.
Beet Juice Benefits: Just Hype or Science-Backed?
Drinking beet juice is one of the latest health crazes going around.
With all the ‘miracle smoothie’ and ‘cleansing juice’ recipes out there, it’s hard not to be suspicious of any fruit/vegetable drink that makes wild claims.
However, it does seem that there are a few proven medical and endurance benefits of beet juice.
Two further studies, specifically related to beet juice, showed that:
- One week of daily dosing significantly reduces blood pressure in heart failure patients (21).
- A randomized controlled trial of beetroot juice in free-living adult males “significantly reduced” blood pressure (22).
Are There Any Problems With Beets?
On the whole, beets are a reasonably nutritious food that shouldn’t cause any adverse health issues.
However, we need to remember that we are all biologically unique, and the health benefits of beets might not be the same for everyone.
While they are fine for the majority of people, for some people they may compromise digestion.
If you do experience any digestive issues with beets in your diet, then this might be because of some compounds found in beets.
These three compounds are known as FODMAPs, oxalates, and salicylates.
FODMAPs is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols.
In other words: a form of carbohydrate that, for some people, is poorly absorbed in the small intestines.
Beets have a moderate to high FODMAP content, so this is just something to be aware of.
Oxalic acid is a naturally occurring compound that is found in various plant foods. Most of the foods that contain it are extremely healthy and important to our health.
However, some people have a genetic predisposition to develop kidney stones, and these people should avoid foods rich in oxalate (25).
For people at risk of kidney stones, or for people seeking to prevent a recurrence of them, then a low-oxalate diet is a standard therapy (26).
Ignoring this for a moment, though, it is not just foods that contain oxalate that matter – but also how bioavailable the oxalate in that particular food is.
Unfortunately, the oxalate in beets has a very poor bioavailability; 6.5 times less than spinach (27).
This makes beets something to avoid for anyone with oxalate issues.
Salicylates are another anti-nutrient that can be found in beets.
Salicylate intolerance (or sensitivity) is a condition that may lead to chronic gastrointestinal irritation in addition to other possible symptoms (28).
Overall, beets are a fairly nutritious food, they appear to improve sporting performance, and they are quite tasty too.
However, they are certainly not a miracle fix for all our health problems.
Always be wary of magical claims; anything that sounds too good to be true is just good marketing.
For more on vegetables, see this balanced review of potatoes.