Mmmm….beets. That golden yellow colour and that fresh, sweet flavour. The beets we cultivate in our gardens are closely related to other vegetables of the "chenopod" family – including spinach, chard and quinoa. Beets were a very valuable crop in 19 th century Europe as an alternative to sugar cane from the West Indies – the starches in beet roots include sucrose which can be refined into "table" sugar – a very valuable commodity at the time.
Beets are actually a great example of the "doctrine of signatures" – which is a traditional method of defining the health affinity of plants/foods based on their shape, colour, smell and taste. Based on their shape, colour and composition, the health effects of beets are majorly associated with the heart and blood. The deep red colour of the beet-root (although you can also find orange and yellow roots) is attributed to unique phytochemicals called betalains. These compounds are different from the anthocyanins which give many other red-purple plants their colour; they are comprised of betaine and choline which have unique functions in the body.
Betaine (actually named from beets, or "Beta vulgaris", as they are an excellent source of the compound) acts as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, particularly in the blood vessels and heart. Betaine has been isolated and studied in the treatment of cardiovascular disease; and is known to be particularly important in reducing levels of a compound called homocysteine. Elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood are a huge risk factor for heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure.
As a doctor who often prescribes food as medicine, I would prescribe beets as a key remedy for a few ailments. Obviously, they are an important component of a heart & blood healthy diet. I recommend them as a component of any "detox" plan, as beets do such a great job of supporting the liver’s function but also cleansing the blood. Foods like beets which act as blood cleansers or purifiers are particularly helpful in the management of chronic skin conditions including acne, eczema and psoriasis. I also recommend beets for those with mild constipation & sluggish digestion, as they both moisten the intestines and promote the natural secretion of stomach acid.
To get the most nutrition and health-benefits out of garden fresh beets, do not steam them for any longer than 15 minutes, or roast them for more than an hour. Minimal cooking time is very important to ensure that the betalain compounds remain active in the food. A few last random notes about beets – it is completely normal that they make your urine red (in addition to No.2). However, it has been noted more recently that "beeturia" or reddish urine following consumption; may be an indication of iron deficiency. **NB. This deficiency is not due to eating beets, but related to the metabolism of betalains which are then excreted in the urine.**
Bronwyn Hill, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor & food lover. She is currently in practice in Toronto's Forest Hill Neighbourhood, at Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health. She specializes in using food as medicine, acupuncture & traditional chinese medicine & botanicals; and has particular experience treating digestive concerns, women's health concerns including menopause, stress management, insomnia, healthy detoxification, and chronic respiratory conditions including asthma. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter @drbronwynnd.