Eating cavemen’s food, only consuming almonds that have been activated and avoiding oil from anything other than a coconut – food trends are getting weirder and weirder. The latest of these weird and (occasionally) wonderful trends is consuming beet (beetroot) juice. Yes, juice from the humble, humdrum beet.
Consuming beet juice has been postulated to: improve sports performance, lower your blood pressure and heck, it will probably make you GOD! It sure doesn’t sound particularly appetising, so it must be really, really good for you!
So, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you this: should you embrace your inner Dwight Shrute and just beet it? Or are you simply wasting your time on an unappetising, tooth discolouring, moustache meddling, sex appeal killing beverage? Let’s find out!
Why it might work:
Before I tell you whether it does work, I’m going to tease you with the theory on why it might work. Beetroot and, more so, beetroot juice are a killer source of nitrate. Nitric oxide (metabolically converted nitrate) has been scientifically proven to cause the blood vessels to relax and dilate, which subsequently improves blood flow. This improvement in blood flow may firstly enhance both exercise performance and recovery – delivering more oxygen, removing more unwanted metabolites and ultimately making you more Lance Armstrong like (post-drugs). Secondly, increased blood flow directly decreases blood pressure, which reduces your risk of dying (1).
At this point the bodybuilders are probably coming to the party with: ‘why not take a nitric oxide boosting supplement?’ To date these have been demonstrated to have, at best, a modest effect at increasing nitric oxide levels. Conversely, consumption of inorganic nitrate via beetroot juice, or other nitrate rich vegetables, has been found to be an effective mechanism as this is readily converted to nitric oxide (1). But does this translate to real life improvements?
Does it actually work?
It does, but it depends on why you’re taking it. Read below, you inquisitive thing.
Endurance (cardio) exercise:
A recent review study of multiple scientific papers found moderate evidence that nitrate consumption via beetroot juice or a direct nitrate supplement (not a nitric oxide booster) enhanced aerobic exercise performance. This included a mix of both animal (relatively meaningless) and human (meaningful) studies, so we can’t make strong conclusions (1). Particularly considering the scientific studies conducted after this time haven’t been so positive.
Yes, in one newer study on a group of type-2 diabetics, half consumed beet juice and half consumed a placebo drink. Beet juice supplementation did not improve aerobic exercise efficiency or performance (2). These findings were then reflected in another recent study on a group of elite runners, with running performance at an altitude unchanged following beet juice supplementation (3). If that wasn’t enough for you, beet juice supplementation was also shown not to make a difference to aerobic exercise performance in a group of patients with COPD (4). In fact, I could real off another 5-10 very recent, human based studies conducted after that aforementioned review finding beetroot juice to be ineffective at improving aerobic exercise performance.
So, where does this leave us? We can’t be certain – there were some positive results in that initial review – but at the present time it appears beet juice is probably ineffective at improving aerobic exercise performance. Sorry, beeters.
Anaerobic (power, strength, speed) exercise:
While beet juice failed the aerobic exercise test, it may be effective for all you power athletes out there. The review I mentioned above found beet juice consumption to generally enhance anaerobic performance, but concluded there weren’t yet enough studies to make firm conclusions (1). Those conclusions may now be made, however, with subsequent studies having been consistently positive. Yes, siree!
In one such study, individuals sipped on either beetroot juice, or a placebo drink for a three day period. They then performed repeated 15 second cycling sprints of maximal effort. The individuals that consumed the beet juice performed significantly more sprints before reaching exhaustion then those that didn’t (5). In another study, beet juice supplementation improved high intensity cycling performance and improved markers of muscle oxygenation, compared to a placebo supplement (6). Lastly, but certainly not least(ly), yet another study found consuming beet juice led to improved repeated sprint performance. It also enhanced performance during a cognitive task and reaction time once fatigued, indicating beet juice may also improve decision making and skilled sport performance (7).
Based on the above, it’s highly, highly likely that beetroot supplementation enhances short, explosive sports performance. Oh and it might get you reacting better and thinking better when you’re fatigued. Get beeting, folks.
What about blood pressure? That review study I’ve mentioned loads already found beet juice in most studies to modestly decrease blood pressure (1). A more recent study on a smaller population found beet juice supplementation decreased blood pressure in those under 65, but not those over 65 (8).
Overall, this indicates beet juice might slightly improve blood pressure. Although, by no means certain, it may only be effective if you’re below the age of 65. So, to conclude, it’s probably worth trying as part of a healthy lifestyle, but not the sole intervention.
Before you go out and drink your weight in beets, there are some possible negatives I should make transparent. There is some concern that excess nitrate consumption may increase the odds of getting cancer. While there have been some weak associations demonstrated, there is no strong human data to directly support this (1). Furthermore, it is probably particularly unlikely that this will occur when nitrate is obtained from a vegetable form like beetroot juice and you don’t drink a stupid, absurd, ridiculous, dumb amount.
How much and when should I drink my beets?
If you do want to get yo(ur) beet on, the optimal dosing regimen hasn’t yet been determined. However, the studies finding a positive effect have had participants consume 500mL of beet juice leading to a peak in nitrate levels two hours later (1). Therefore, if you consume that amount two hours before your high intensity exercise then you should be laughing. Laughing, because you’re winning.
It’s not certain whether consuming this dose over a course of several days might enhance nitric oxide levels further than a single day, but considering the weak but possible association with cancer, single doses before sport may be better for the time being.
Oh and before I go, one more thing. If you use mouthwash or swim in a pool anytime close to consuming your delicious, delectable beet juice it may inhibit the chemical reaction that occurs with the saliva in the mouth and not work (1)! Sorry, Michael Phelps if you’re reading.
Is it healthful?
Aerobic exercise performance: unhealthful (at this stage of the game).
Anaerobic exercise performance: Moderately healthful.
Blood pressure: Slightly healthful.
As always, I hope this has been healthful and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and opinions – be they good or bad!