Whole Beets vs. Juice for Improving Athletic Performance

Whole Beets vs. Juice for Improving Athletic Performance
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What is the latest science on the performance-enhancing qualities of nitrate-rich vegetables?

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Nitrates, concentrated in green leafy vegetables and beets, underwent a great makeover a few years ago from inert substances to having profound effects on the power plants within all of our cells, reducing the oxygen cost during exercise—meaning we can bust out the same amount of work with less oxygen. So, one little shot of beet juice allows free divers to hold their breath for over four minutes; they get about a half-minute longer, and for others, this improved muscle efficiency allows athletes to exercise at a higher power output or running speed for the same amount of breath. I profiled this discovery in an unprecedented 17-part video series, the longest I think I’ve ever done—it was just so fascinating. But that was back in 2012; what’s happened since? Well, this all led to many athletes—elite and amateur alike—consuming beetroot juice prior to competition. But what does the new science say?

Well, most of the studies were done on men; turns out it works on women too—even African-American women, an even more neglected research demographic. Same workload power outputs using significantly less oxygen after drinking beet juice. But forget beet juice; what about whole beets? Cheaper; healthier; can find them in any produce aisle. But there had never been any studies on actual beets, until now.

Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. They gave physically fit men and women a cup and a half of baked beets, which is equal to about a can of beets, 75 minutes before running a 5K. They started out the same, but during the last mile of the 5K race, the beet group pulled ahead, compared to the placebo group, who were given berries instead.

Though they were running faster, their heart rate wasn’t any higher. If anything, the beet group reported less exertion. Faster time with less effort? They don’t call them block-rockin’ beets for nothing.

But if nitrates are so good, why not just take them in a pill? Nitrate supplements with names like “Hellfire”—although they can work, their long-term safety is questionable. Non-vegetable sources of nitrates may have detrimental health effects; so, if we want to improve our performance, we should ideally obtain nitrates from whole vegetables. The industry knows this, so instead markets an array of nitric oxide-stimulating supplements. However, there is little or no evidence of a performance improvement following supplementation with these so called NO boosters. The evidence is with the vegetables.

How much money can companies make selling beets though? So, how about a novel beetroot-enriched bread product? We’ve tried to get people to eat their fruits and vegetables, and where has that gotten us? But hey, lots of people eat white bread; why not have them eat red bread? And, indeed, it worked; red beet bread brought down blood pressures, and improved the ability of arteries to relax and dilate naturally. Bread, therefore, may be an effective vehicle to increase vegetable consumption without significant dietary changes, because heaven forbid people should have to change their diet to improve their health.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Nicholas Noyes via Flickr and Anna Kucherova via 123rf.

Nitrates, concentrated in green leafy vegetables and beets, underwent a great makeover a few years ago from inert substances to having profound effects on the power plants within all of our cells, reducing the oxygen cost during exercise—meaning we can bust out the same amount of work with less oxygen. So, one little shot of beet juice allows free divers to hold their breath for over four minutes; they get about a half-minute longer, and for others, this improved muscle efficiency allows athletes to exercise at a higher power output or running speed for the same amount of breath. I profiled this discovery in an unprecedented 17-part video series, the longest I think I’ve ever done—it was just so fascinating. But that was back in 2012; what’s happened since? Well, this all led to many athletes—elite and amateur alike—consuming beetroot juice prior to competition. But what does the new science say?

Well, most of the studies were done on men; turns out it works on women too—even African-American women, an even more neglected research demographic. Same workload power outputs using significantly less oxygen after drinking beet juice. But forget beet juice; what about whole beets? Cheaper; healthier; can find them in any produce aisle. But there had never been any studies on actual beets, until now.

Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. They gave physically fit men and women a cup and a half of baked beets, which is equal to about a can of beets, 75 minutes before running a 5K. They started out the same, but during the last mile of the 5K race, the beet group pulled ahead, compared to the placebo group, who were given berries instead.

Though they were running faster, their heart rate wasn’t any higher. If anything, the beet group reported less exertion. Faster time with less effort? They don’t call them block-rockin’ beets for nothing.

But if nitrates are so good, why not just take them in a pill? Nitrate supplements with names like “Hellfire”—although they can work, their long-term safety is questionable. Non-vegetable sources of nitrates may have detrimental health effects; so, if we want to improve our performance, we should ideally obtain nitrates from whole vegetables. The industry knows this, so instead markets an array of nitric oxide-stimulating supplements. However, there is little or no evidence of a performance improvement following supplementation with these so called NO boosters. The evidence is with the vegetables.

How much money can companies make selling beets though? So, how about a novel beetroot-enriched bread product? We’ve tried to get people to eat their fruits and vegetables, and where has that gotten us? But hey, lots of people eat white bread; why not have them eat red bread? And, indeed, it worked; red beet bread brought down blood pressures, and improved the ability of arteries to relax and dilate naturally. Bread, therefore, may be an effective vehicle to increase vegetable consumption without significant dietary changes, because heaven forbid people should have to change their diet to improve their health.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Nicholas Noyes via Flickr and Anna Kucherova via 123rf.

Doctor's Note

17-part video series? My videos were much shorter back then, but still! Here you go if you want to put the whole discovery in context and get the detailed mechanism:

Wait, that’s only 16. I think at the time I was also including Meat Additives to Diminish Toxicity.

How else can we support athletic performance? See:

On the other hand, Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

It’s great that we can improve athletic performance eating a few beets, but what about people who could really benefit from a more efficient use of oxygen? That’s the subject of my next video, Oxygenating Blood With Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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