Cultivation of beet roots for consumption was first recorded in 1542, in either Germany or Italy, according to PBS. Previously, humans had only eaten the beet greens, and the roots, which were thin and fibrous at the time, were only used in medicine. Today, beets are a staple, both for their roots and their leafy green tops. So what’s so great about them, anyway?
“Beets are amongst one of the healthiest root vegetables out there,” says Ben Sit, a registered dietitian based in Toronto.
“Like any other brightly coloured vegetable, beetroots offer an array of health benefits,” adds Toronto-based registered dietitian Julia Stanislavskaia. “[The] rule of thumb is, the brighter the colour of a fruit or vegetable, the better it is for us and all bright vegetables should be part of the dietary repertoire – [the] same can be said about spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, and blueberries, for example.”
Stanislavskaia suggests incorporating beets and cooking with them one or two times per month, or more often if they’re a favourite.
Beet Basics from Ben and Julia
- Significant source of potassium, which counters the negative effects of sodium. “We all struggle to get the daily recommended amount of potassium, mostly found in fruits and vegetables, and beetroot is a veggie that can help,” Stanislavskaia says.
- Significant source of folate, which is important for forming red blood cells and DNA, and is crucial during pregnancy. “Folate is not so easy to get from diet because it is found in healthy foods people tend to shy away from, like legumes and dark leafy greens,” Stanislavskaia explains.
- 2 grams of fibre in ½ cup.
- Full of betalain pigment, which gives beets their red/purple colour. Betalains have been studied for their power as antioxidants, and appear to have the capacity to help protect the body from oxidative stress and degenerative diseases associated with it. In particular, betalains may be protective from cardiovascular disease and cancer, Stanislavskaia says.
- Golden beets have more calcium than red/purple beets, Sit says, but they don’t contain the betalain pigment betanin, which acts as an antioxidant.
- That red pigment, betanin, is not fully broken down by the body. It can show up in urine and bowel movements. “Don’t be alarmed!” Sit says. “This is natural!
- Beetroot and beetroot juice are currently being studied for their high nitrate content, which may influence athletic performance.
Stanislavskaia says a bit more nutrients are released when beets are cooked, versus raw, but the difference is not significant. For the most nutrition, she suggests lightly cooked beets.
If you don’t like the earthy flavour of beets, Stanislavskaia suggests using small amounts or marinating them in a vinaigrette so they absorb another flavour. You can also eat alternatives for the same nutritional benefits, Sit says, such as arugula and spinach.
And don’t forget those leafy green tops!
“Beet greens are a nutrient powerhouse that perhaps can challenge kale and chard,” Stanislavskaia says. “One cup of cooked beet greens will give you a serving of calcium, a good chunk of iron, a third of your magnesium and a third of your potassium needs, lots of beta carotene and fibre!”
Stanislavskaia describes the flavour of beet greens as fresh, with no bitter aftertaste, like other dark leafy greens can have.
“Remember that all dark leafy greens release the nutrients when they are cooked,” she adds.
As a cautionary tale, Sit shares a couple of minor warnings about consuming beets.
“Beets have a high amount of oxalates, which can accumulate and form kidney stones. Oxalates can also interfere with the absorption of other nutrients; however this is more of an issue for beetroot juice as opposed to beets. So if you take beetroot juice, try to separate it from meals to ensure optimal absorption of all nutrients.”
However, he adds, this is not likely to be a problem if one has a well-balanced diet including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
“Beets might not be so friendly towards people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Some of the healthy sugars in beets might be more difficult to digest in the small intestine for people suffering from IBS, and might cause gas, bloating and other GI symptoms that aren’t fun to deal with,” Sit says.