THE benefits of beetroot juice can boost overall exercise performance and burn body fat, according to new research. But is it really a powerhouse veg, or just a fad?
The research, led by Dr Aaron Sverdlov, an associate professor of cardiology with the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle and Dr Doan Ngo, an associate professor of cardiovascular research at the University of Newcastle are studying the health-boosting properties of beetroot juice on the body, especially among obese people.
A total of 50 overweight people will be recruited into the study. All participants will drink 70ml of beetroot juice each day for eight weeks. Half of the candidates will consume a specially designed, concentrated beetroot juice, while the other 25 will consume a placebo version. Each participant will have their exercise capacity tested and muscle biopsies taken to measure the energy consumed before and after the eight weeks of beetroot juice supplementation.
WHAT'S THE MAGIC INGREDIENT IN BEETS?
The excitement around beetroot juice - especially as the new buzzword in sports supplements - comes from its particularly high content of naturally occurring nitrate. Once consumed, these nitrates are converted to nitric oxide which opens up blood vessels allowing more oxygen to be delivered to working muscles.
There's also evidence that nitrates can help reduce the energy cost of exercise and aid muscle contraction. In other words, you're able to use oxygen more efficiently, so the end result is that you can work harder for longer.
THE BEET BOOST
It's not the first time that beetroot juice has proven to help boost exercise capacity, particularly on athletes. A Western Australian study published in the International Journal Of Sports Nutrition And Exercise Metabolism investigated the influence beetroot supplements had on physiological and performance outcomes in elite kayakers. Results showed a 70ml beetroot juice shot given to male kayakers made a small improvement in distance covered. However, when researchers tested a larger dose of beetroot juice (140ml) they found a meaningful performance improvement of 1.7 per cent.
"The nitrate in beetroot juice has been shown to improve the efficiency of processes that occur in the mitochondria, which are the cell's energy factory," said lead researcher Dr Peter Peeling from UWA's School of Sport Science.
"If you can find a way of reducing the oxygen cost of a given activity, you might improve the ability to withstand the exercise intensity for a greater period of time, or you find a greater level of output for the original oxygen cost," he said.
Dr Dominique Condo, lecturer in sports nutrition at Deakin University and accredited sports dietitian at AFL club Geelong, regularly uses beetroot juice when working with athletes.
"Supplementation protocols may vary depending on the athlete and the type of sport," she said. "To get the benefits of the supplement, athletes need to be compliant and follow appropriate protocols, generally consuming 70-140ml of beetroot juice in a supplement form approximately 2 hours pre-event. The benefits of this supplement have appeared to be more evident in athletes that participate in higher intense sport, however the optimal protocols for the range of sporting situations is yet to be determined."
FAT LOSS PILL?
Dr Ngo said the study could shed light on how beetroot juice can help people who are overweight.
"We are hoping to use beetroot juice as an easy alternative to increase exercise duration for patients with obesity, therefore helping them to lose weight and promote healthy cardio-respiratory fitness," she told ABC News.
But Dr Sverdlov said even if the study confirmed their hypothesis that beetroot juice can improve exercise performance in the general population who are overweight, it will not be the fat loss pill we are hoping for.
"It's very hard to sustain a very strict diet over a long period of time, but to drink a glass of juice per day we're hoping it's going to be a much easier long-term, sustainable option for people," he said.
Sports Dietitians Australia argue that nitrates remains an area for further research, but there appears to be beneficial effects on performance for a range of higher intensity sports (at least in the lab).
THE TAKE AWAY
Sipping beetroot juice may increase your exercise endurance - most likely if you're an athlete at the peak of fitness. For most of us, the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness is to exercise regularly, achieving the recommended 30 minutes, five times a week. For losing fat, unfortunately that means 60 minutes on most days of the week.
Of course, you can't neglect your eating habits and switching a can of soft drink to a glass of beetroot juice is a simple step we can all make.
Kathleen Alleaume is an exercise and nutrition scientist and founder of The Right Balance. Follow her on Twitter @therightbalance.
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