The earthy purple vegetable is a must for fitness fans and beginners alike, and it’s making its way onto a BBQ near you. Here’s what beetroot brings to the table healthwise

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Take a scout of supermarkets, brunch spots and hipster cafés up and down the land and you may notice a type of purple reign is apparent (apologies). Sure, avocado is still riding high on its toasted sourdough throne, but the likes of beetroot hummus, beetroot burgers and spiralized beetroot, to name just a few modern beetroot incarnations, are rife within the aisles and upon blackboard menus of many an establishment. We’re developing a taste for the deep purple root vegetable, and if you’ve ever whizzed it into a smoothie pre or post workout, it turns out you were onto something…

Beetroot as training partner

The connection between borscht and better workouts may seem an odd one, but bear with us. Scientific evidence suggests that consuming beetroot could not only improve our sporting performance during a fitness session, but speed up recovery afterwards too.

A study  published in the International Journal of of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism linked the consumption of nitrate-rich beetroot juice with improvements in our capacity to endure short bursts of intense activity. So just what’s powering this superjuice, and how does it really help in a HIIT class ? Dr Tom Clifford , Teaching Fellow in Sports and Exercise Nutrition at Newcastle University, explains why a blast of beetroot could take a workout to the next level:

“It is likely that we are seeing some synergistic effects — where a variety of nutrients in beetroot work together and become more beneficial in combination. They include:

Nitrate, which our bodies convert into nitric oxide, is just one of a number of nutrients in beetroot which is likely to fuel fitness. It has a regulatory role in respiration, immune function, blood pressure, and muscle contraction and nitrate supplementation has been shown to enhance oxygen uptake, exercise efficiency and stamina and stalls muscle depletion of phosphocreatine, a body chemical which fuels short bursts of activity.

Betalains, the pigments which give beetroot its distinctive colour, have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemoprotective properties.

Iron  is essential for energy because it’s the building block for the oxygen transporter, haemoglobin, but low levels are common and women who work out are at the greatest risk of deficiency.

Antioxidants may be a factor too. High intensity exercise increases levels of free radicals known as reactive oxygen species, and this is probably an issue where subsequent muscle damage is concerned. Antioxidants help to combat these free radicals, however.

Polyphenols are health-enhancing plant compounds which often encourage anti-inflammatory activity. One of a number found in beetroot is quercetin, which is also a potent antioxidant. The amount of quercetin in beetroot is tiny, but as is often the case, quercetin is more bioavailable (useful for the body) when it is found in combination with other antioxidants, such as vitamin C. It just so happens that beetroot is also a good source of vitamin C, although it can be destroyed during the cooking process- eat it raw or pulse it into a smoothie to reap the vitamin-rich rewards.

Magnesium  fuels more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including regulating blood pressure, muscle and nerve function. For these reasons and more, magnesium has been linked to better muscle performance, flexibility and strength.

Potassium is important for muscle cell function, and potassium depletion is a factor in muscle fatigue- it’s likely to be a driver for pain and degenerative changes associated with prolonged exercise.”

A* to beetroot so far, although bizarrely, despite the fact that Paralympic gold medallist David Weir swears by a shot of beetroot juice pre-race, studies show that beetroot juice has little to no effect on the physical performance of elite athletes. For us mere mortals, Dr Clifford believes incorporating a bit of beetroot into your diet can still make a tangible difference to your PB, and get you out of the starting blocks more smoothly if you’re new to the gym or returning to exercise:

“One of the intriguing aspects of the emerging science surrounding the benefits of beetroot in terms of exercise is the fact that it has real potential to help to build a virtuous cycle. If someone who isn’t at peak fitness combines exercise and an increased intake of beetroot, the evidence suggests that they might be able to work out for longer, and suffer less muscle strain afterwards.”

Combine eating more beetroot with an active lifestyle and you also have a recipe for lower blood pressure, as both regular exercise and the consumption of nitrates via beetroot are known to reduce blood pressure. For additional iron and vitamin C, eat the leaves too, although you’ll find them a bitter hit compared to sweet taste of the beetroot itself.

As for giving you fuel for your fitness regime, the high fibre  content of beetroot helps to keep you fuller for longer, while the slow-releasing sugars deliver on the energy front. It’s also possible that it doesn’t solely boost physical exertion in a workout context either according to dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton :

“Beetroot was used in Roman times as an aphrodisiac, and this could have some basis according to modern research. Beetroot contains a mineral called boron, which enables more sex hormones to circulate in the body. The nitrate content of beetroot could also help to promote blood supply to sex organs and, theoretically, boost erections. This definitely requires further study, however…”

All in all we say it’s worth a shot, although as with any food, healthy or not, it’s advisable not to go overboard. A serving a day is all good, but be warned that consuming a lot of it could result in purple poo and pink wees. Not dangerous, just super weird and quite psychedelic for a toilet trip. Also, as with kale , if you suffer from kidney problems you should steer clear or limit your intake- beetroot is high in oxalic acid, which can aggravate kidney stones and gout. Otherwise, beet a path to the farmer’s market (it’s in season until October).

Check out this  sporty beetroot juice recipe

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