As we enjoy the warmer temperatures of spring, we also enjoy the fresh vegetables that come along with the season. One spring vegetable, the beet, offers colour, flavour and health benefits in every bite, whether you are enjoying a serving of the deep purple root or of the green, leafy beet tops.
The beet is believed to have originated in ancient times as a wild North African vegetable, which progressively spread along the Asian and European seashores. Although in this period, people ate the beet greens only, when the ancient Romans began cultivating beets, they included the root in their diet. As beet cultivation spread throughout Europe, whole beets were first used as livestock fodder and later added to the human diet.
By the 16th century, beets had become a common staple across Europe. Over time, beet production was introduced to North America and now the world’s leading beet producers include the US, Russia, France, Poland and Germany. This worldwide cultivation ensures that high-quality, canned and pickled beets are available year-round.
However, spring is the season to enjoy the peak nutritional benefits found in freshly pulled beet roots and leaves. The beet’s unique pigment antioxidants in the root and in the leaves protect against coronary artery disease and stroke, lower cholesterol levels within the body, and have anti-aging effects.
Beets are full of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and unique anti-oxidants. With no cholesterol and few calories – just 45 per 100 grams, one cup of beets supplies a good percentage of your daily requirements of these nutrients: 34% of folate; 28% of manganese; 15% of potassium; 14% of fibre; 14% of copper; 10% of magnesium; 9% of phosphorus; 8% of Vitamin C; 7% of iron; and 6% of Vitamin B6.
Since beet root contains a phytochemical compound, glycine betaine, it protects against heart disease by lowering homocysteine levels within the blood. Elevated homocysteine levels cause inflammation that leads to heart disease, stroke and/or peripheral vascular diseases by promoting the production of clots and the formation plaque on interior arterial walls. So, reducing homocysteine levels maintains healthier blood vessels.
The potassium contained in the beet root helps to lower your heart rate and to regulate the metabolism inside your cells by maintaining an appropriate sodium balance. Another antioxidant in beets, alpha-liporic acid, benefits diabetics because it has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and to lower glucose levels. As a result, it decreases the damage caused by peripheral and/or autonomic neuropathy in diabetics, lowering a diabetic’s risk of developing numb, and/or burning, painful nerve endings in the hands or feet.
Beets are also an excellent source of the antioxidant Vitamin C. However, this high concentration of Vitamin C is in the beet greens, not the root. The leaves also contain other anti-oxidants, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and Vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy mucous membranes, skin and vision. Flavonoids also offer protection from lung and oral cavity cancers.
The high folate content in beets promotes neurological health and maintains effective thought processes. Nitrates, another component of beets also support good cognitive and physical function by dilating blood vessels and improving blood flow. Increased blood flow to your brain improves mental activity and increased blood flow to your muscles increases physical endurance and stamina, while lowering your resting blood pressure.
Beets also help with digestion. Their high fibre content supports the effective elimination of waste products, promoting a healthy digestive tract.
There may be a downside to consuming too many beets, though. Some potential health risks are associated with beet root; over-indulging may impact the effectiveness of prescription nitrate drugs, such as nitroglycerine, dildenafil citrate, tadalafil and/or vardenafil. Another side effect you may notice is red urine or stool – a harmless result of the beet’s colouring.
This spring, when selecting fresh beets to add to your balanced diet, choose bunches with small to medium sized, firm roots – these will be tender and sweet. Larger, over-mature roots will be bitter and woody. Beet roots retain their quality and can be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Add well-washed beets roots to salads, or boil them in a small amount of water for a side vegetable. (Once tender, skin easily slides off).
When top greens are attached, cut these leaves off quickly to eat as soon as possible. Otherwise, the leaves will draw moisture from the root, causing it to wither. Rinse beet leaves thoroughly under clean running water. Then, fully remove soil, dirt, sand and insecticide residue by soaking the leaves in fresh water for up to 30 minutes. (This will also help crisp up the leaves and avoid wilting). Fresh beet tops may be used as a tasty addition to sandwiches, salads, or as a steamed side vegetable. As you enjoy all the fruits and vegetables spring offers – don’t miss a beet.
Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.