A bunch of beets

Few vegetables are as polarizing as beets. Some love their earthy sweetness while others think they taste a little like dirt. People also wonder whether they have too much sugar, or if they’ve been genetically modified.

But the truth is, there are a lot of good reasons to eat beets. And if you haven’t tried them since you were forced to eat the canned version as a child, it’s time to taste the real thing.

Nutrients You Should Know

Beets, like most vegetables, are packed with many familiar and healthy nutrients. They are a good source of folate, magnesium, vitamin C, and fiber. But what really sets beets apart are the lesser-known—but highly beneficial—nutrients they contain. “Compounds in beets—such as nitrates, betalains, and betaine—have been studied for their positive effects on oxidative stress, inflammation, cardiovascular health, and cognition,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition and dietetics, Saint Louis University and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Research has found that betalains (which give beets their rich red color) have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Betaine is essential for many cell functions and also protects cells against oxidative stress, which can damage cells. “And the nitrates in beets help expand blood vessels,” says Lisa Sasson, R.D., clinical professor of nutrition at New York University. “Studies have shown that after eating foods that contain nitrates (such as beets), there is increased blood flow to the brain.”

The blood vessel-widening effect of nitrates may also help lower blood pressure and improve exercise performance. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers gave athletes beetroot (in a supplement) or placebo before and during two hours of moderate-intensity cycling. Those who got the beetroot showed less muscle fatigue and reduced oxygen consumption.    

“Our research found improved endurance and also better muscle contraction, which helps increase power and speed,” says Andrew M. Jones, Ph.D., professor of sport and health sciences at University of Exeter and one of the study authors. “The effect seems to come mainly from the nitrate, but other compounds—such as antioxidants and betaine—might make the nitrate more effective.”

Most of the studies looking at the benefits of beets use beet juice or powder because it’s more concentrated. “But the beneficial effects of eating whole beets are the same,” says Jones. “The amount we studied would be equivalent to eating about three or four beets.”

What About the Sugar?

It’s true that beets do have more sugars than many other vegetables—about 8 grams in a serving of two small beets. But that’s hardly the same as getting 8 grams of sugars from a cookie. “Beets are high in fiber, which traps the sugar and slows its absorption into the bloodstream,” says Linsenmeyer.

If you’re following a low carbohydrate diet, Linsenmeyer suggests looking at beets’ carbohydrate content in terms of its glycemic load (a measure of the type and amount of carbohydrates in a food). “The glycemic load for a cup of beets is 8.3, and anything under 10 is considered low,” she says.

Beets Come in Many Forms

Beets are a surprisingly versatile vegetable. Sliced thin or shredded, they are delicious raw in salads and slaws. Or you can boil, steam, or roast them. “Because they’re higher in sugar, they’re naturally sweet,” says Sasson. “And when you roast them, that sugar makes them caramelize.” That brings out their sweetness even more. Beyond the classic red beets, look for yellow, orange, and even striped varieties.

Fresh, frozen, canned (if low in sodium), and vacuum-packed beets are all good choices. But a variety of new beet products are showing up on store shelves. “Be wary of beet snacks that have a health halo, but are really just another unhealthy processed snack food,” says Sasson. Avoid beet chips that are fried in oil and loaded with salt. And check the ingredients on things like beet crackers or thins. In many cases, the only beets they contain come from a sprinkling of beet powder.

And if you’re concerned about GMOs, you don’t have to worry about beets. The beets we eat (known as table beets) are not a genetically modified crop. However, the vast majority of sugarbeets—which are grown to make white sugar—are GMO.

Don’t Toss the Tops

When you buy fresh beets, you’re essentially getting two vegetables in one. Those leafy green tops (that many people chop off and throw away) are also incredibly tasty and nutritious. They are a rich source of folate and minerals such as calcium and iron. A cup of greens also provides about 2,400 IUs of vitamin A in the form of beta carotene—a nutrient that is linked to eye health and reduced risk of breast cancer.

You can prepare beet greens as you would other greens—such as Swiss chard. Wash and separate the leaves and stems. Chop the stems into ½-inch pieces and tear the leaves into large pieces. “I like to sauté the stems in olive oil, add the leaves and cook till slightly wilted, then finish with a splash of white wine, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes,” says Linsenmeyer. “They’re delicious on their own as a side dish or mixed with pasta.”

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