If you have breathing troubles, nitrates — a compound found in beets — may be able to help. Previous studies have shown that nitrates can help improve muscle function by optimizing the way the muscles use calcium. Since the diaphragm is a muscle, researchers from the University of Florida wanted to see if those benefits could be translated to the diaphragm.
For the study,1 researchers split old mice into two groups. One group was given drinking water that contained sodium nitrate daily for 14 days. The other group was given plain water.
After the study period, they measured the isometric force and peak power of the diaphragm muscles in the mice and found that both significantly increased in the group of mice given nitrates in their drinking water.
This increase in force and power translated to improved contraction of the diaphragm muscle, which can then improve lung function and breathing. The increased power in the diaphragm could also help older people clear the lungs more effectively, which may help reduce the risk of developing infections. For reference, the mice used in the study were 24 months old, which is equivalent to about 70 years of age in humans.
This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic for two reasons. The first is that severe symptoms disproportionally affect the older population. We already know that respiratory muscle function declines with age, contributing to breathing troubles, impaired airway clearance and a decreased quality of life. Since nitrates can improve muscle function of the diaphragm, it may help improve the outlook for older populations with respiratory infections like COVID-19.
The study’s author, Leonardo Ferreira, also points out that one of the problems with weaning COVID-19 patients off ventilators is respiratory muscle dysfunction. If dietary nitrates can help improve that muscle function, it may make the transition from ventilators to independent breathing more successful.2
The nitrates in beets have also been shown to help improve oxygen uptake by dilating the blood vessels and allowing more oxygen to be delivered to muscles, like the diaphragm, and other cells.3
Other Benefits of Beets
But beets aren’t only good for your lungs. Other studies have shown that red beets may also:
Lower your blood pressure — Drinking beet juice may help to lower blood pressure in a matter of hours. One study found that drinking one glass of beet juice lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of four to five points.4 The benefit likely comes from the naturally occurring nitrates in beets, which are converted into nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide, in turn, helps to relax and dilate your blood vessels, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
Another study5 found drinking 8 ounces of beet juice per day lowered blood pressure by an average of nearly eight points after the first week, which is more than most blood pressure medications.
Boost your stamina — If you need a boost to make it through your next workout, beet juice may again prove valuable. Those who drank beet juice prior to exercise were able to exercise for up to 16% longer.6 The benefit is thought to also be related to nitrates turning into nitric oxide, which may reduce the oxygen cost of low-intensity exercise as well as enhance tolerance to high-intensity exercise.
Fight inflammation — Beets are a unique source of betaine, a nutrient that helps protects cells, proteins and enzymes from environmental stress. It’s also known to help fight inflammation, protect internal organs, improve vascular risk factors, enhance performance and likely help prevent numerous chronic diseases.7 As reported by The World’s Healthiest Foods:8
Stave off cancer — The powerful phytonutrients that give beets their deep crimson color may help to ward off cancer. Research has shown that beetroot extract reduced multi-organ tumor formations in various animal models when administered in drinking water, for instance, while beetroot extract is also being studied for use in treating human pancreatic, breast and prostate cancers.9
Provide valuable nutrients and fiber — Beets are high in immune-boosting vitamin C, fiber and essential minerals like potassium (essential for healthy nerve and muscle function) and manganese10 (which is good for your bones, liver, kidneys, and pancreas). Beets also contain the B vitamin folate, which helps reduce the risk of birth defects.
Support detoxification — The betalin pigments in beets support your body’s Phase 2 detoxification process,11 which is when broken down toxins are bound to other molecules so they can be excreted from your body. Traditionally, beets are valued for their support in detoxification and helping to purify your blood and your liver.
Nitrates in Foods
Almost 80% of dietary nitrates come from vegetables.12 Beets are one of the richest sources, containing more than 250 milligrams of nitrates per 100 grams. Other foods with high nitrate content include arugula, celery, cress, chervil, celeriac, Chinese cabbage, fennel, endive, kohlrabi, mustard greens, leeks and parsley.
Keep in mind that naturally occurring nitrates are different from the nitrates found in processed foods, such as bacon or sausages. The nitrates that you get from vegetables are converted to nitric oxide (NO) in your body.
NO has potent health benefits, as described in “Why You Need to Try the Nitric Oxide Dump Workout.” However, when nitrates and nitrites from processed meats react with the gastric acid in your stomach, it forms nitrosamines, harmful compounds that have been linked to several different types of cancer.13,14
The reason meat-based nitrites don’t boost NO production but rather turn into harmful N-nitroso compounds has to do with the presence of proteins and heme15 (an iron-containing compound that makes up part of the hemoglobin molecule in blood) and the absence of antioxidant compounds.
On the other hand, plants contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and polyphenols that impede the formation of harmful nitrosamines. The presence of these compounds helps ensure that the nitrites are converted into NO once they reach your stomach rather than harmful N-nitroso compounds.16
Unlike processed meats like bacon, most plant foods are also not cooked or fried at high temperatures, which further minimizes the chances that harmful substances will be produced.
How to Eat Beets
If you’re new to beets, there are plenty of ways you can enjoy them:
- Grate them raw over salads
- Juice them, along with other fruits and vegetables
- Lightly steam them
- Marinate them with lemon juice, herbs and olive oil
Please note that if you’re interested in buying beets to make your own juice, the industry has gone the way of so many crops in the U.S. — toward genetic engineering, according to the Organic and Non-GMO Report.17 This is particularly true with sugar beets.
While the table beets most people eat are not currently genetically engineered, they’re often grown in close proximity to sugar beets, which are often GE, and cross-pollination is known to occur. So, when choosing beets to eat, opt for organic varieties whenever possible.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous for humans on a number of levels. GMOs may alter DNA, potentially cause cancer, and may trigger other “less severe” problems like organ failure, liver and kidney damage.
Although beets have the highest sugar content of all vegetables, most people can safely eat beet roots a few times a week. Beetroot juice, however, should be consumed in moderation.
Make sure you also eat the beet greens, which are loaded with valuable nutrients, including phosphorus, zinc, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, calcium and iron.18