Flavorful beets can help build stronger muscles and brains

Flavorful beets can help build stronger muscles and brains

By Kim Larson

Special to The Herald

There’s no debating it. Beets whether — red or yellow add beautiful color and flavor to dishes. In season now, they can be seen on almost every trendy or farm-to-table restaurant menu and are a magnificent addition to salads and main dishes.

In addition to their rich, deep, umami taste, beets and their juice are now being revered by both athletes and non-athletes alike as a health and performance booster.

Why all the attention on beets?

Red beets are high in betalains, a phytonutrient that has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and gives them their vibrant crimson color. Betalains lower homocysteine levels in blood that can promote clotting and plaque formation in the walls of arteries. Keeping homocysteine levels low protects against heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular diseases. Yellow beets are rich in xanthin pigment, a carotenoid that provides the yellow-orange color.

All beets are high in folate (prevents birth defects) and are also a good source of manganese, potassium and copper — for only 60 calories a cup. Beets are also high in fiber, which helps keep your digestive tract happy and healthy.

Recent studies are focusing not on the beet but its juice and how it might aid athletic performance. Studies confirm it has the potential to enhance exercise endurance and improves muscle oxygenation in exercise. That’s important because increasing oxygen to exercising muscles is a key limiting factor in exercise performance.

Other studies show it improves oxygenation of the brain, which may help slow dementia and cognitive decline.

Still other studies have found it lowers blood pressure when the nitrates are converted to nitric oxide in our bodies, which increases blood flow. Results varied according to the amount consumed. For athletes, drinking beet juice about three hours before exercise and even drinking it daily during hard training phases seems to produce the best results. Be sure you store it properly to avoid bacterial contamination that can be hazardous.

Check with your doctor before drinking beet juice or eating beets regularly if you are on nitrate drugs for angina or if taking other medications.

Carrots, beets and turnips are root vegetables, not tubers. Red and yellow beets are genetically and nutritionally different from the traditional sugar beet used to make sugar. You can steam them gently for 10 to 14 minutes and serve them as a side dish, toss into whole grain or green salads or top with a yogurt sauce. About 15 percent of adults experience “beeturia” so don’t fret when you see pink-colored urine in the toilet after eating them. It’s normal.

Don’t forget to eat the delicious and tender greens that top these awkwardly misshapen bulbs. You will be amazed by their exquisite taste. They’re loaded with nutrients like Vitamins A and C and a valuable source of two carotenoids that are especially important for eye health, lutein and zeaxanthin. These phytonutrients protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration.

Here’s one of my favorite beet recipes:

Grilled beets with lemon creme fraiche dip

10 medium beets (about 4 lb.), trimmed and washed

1 head garlic, halved crosswise

3 fl. oz. (1⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) pale ale

3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

3 sprigs fresh thyme

Kosher salt

1 cup crème fraîche

4 tsp. fresh lemon juice

In a large bowl, toss the beets and garlic with the ale, oil, thyme, and 2 Tbs. salt. Transfer to a large square of heavy-duty aluminum foil and seal into a packet.

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill fire for indirect cooking over low (300 degrees) heat. Grill the packet over the cool zone of the grill until the beets are completely tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 3 hours. (Alternatively, roast the beets in a 300 degrees oven for 3 to 31⁄2 hours.)

Remove the beets from the foil, peel them, and cut them into quarters. (Discard the garlic.) Transfer the beets to a serving bowl or platter.

In a small bowl, mix the crème fraîche and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt. Serve the beets warm or at room temperature with the lemon crème fraîche dip on the side.

Make ahead tips: The beets can be grilled a day ahead. Refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving.

—From Fine Cooking

Kim Larson is a registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of Total Health, www.totalhealthrd.com, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Follower her at www.facebook.com/totalhealthnutrition and on Twitter @healthrd.

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