Are There Health Benefits of Beetroot Juice for Athletes?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Exercise, Food and Health

Should You Add Beetroot Juice To Your Training Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

health benefits of beetroot juiceWhen I saw the headline “Beetroot Juice May Boost Aerobic Fitness For Swimmers” I did a double take. Could something as simple as eating more beets actually improve exercise performance? Are there real health benefits of beetroot juice for athletes?  So I looked up recent papers on the topic.  But, before I review those I should give you a little science behind the idea that beetroot juice might affect performance.

The Science Behind Beetroot Juice And Exercise

Nitric oxide is a colorless, odorless gas that serves as an important signaling molecule in the human body. Among its many beneficial effects is increased blood flow to muscle. This increased blood flow appears to be preferentially distributed to the type 2 muscle fibers which support moderate to high intensity exercise. Thus, nutrients that enhance nitric oxide levels might be expected to improve moderate to high intensity exercise.

There are two naturally occurring pathways for producing nitric oxide in the body. The first pathway utilizes arginine, an amino acid found in dietary protein. The second pathway utilizes nitrates, which are found in fruits and vegetables. The best dietary sources of nitrates are beetroot, spinach and other leafy green vegetables.

Arginine has been widely used in sports supplements for some time to enhance performance. However, clinical studies on arginine have been mixed, with some showing small enhancements in performance and others showing no significant effect. Most experts now think that the benefits of arginine are primarily seen with untrained or moderately trained athletes (people like you and me) – not for highly trained or elite athletes.

It is logical that natural sources of nitrates, such as beetroot juice, would have a similar beneficial effect on exercise, but it is only in the last couple of years that scientists have started to evaluate that possibility. I looked up six recent publications for this review.

Does Beetroot Juice Improve Exercise Performance?

Study # 1: In this study (Bailey et al, J. Appl. Physiol., 107: 1144-1155, 2009) untrained men (aged 19-38) were given beetroot juice or a placebo for 6 days and then put through a series moderate-intensity and severe-intensity step exercise tests on days 4-6. The amount of oxygen required to support the moderate intensity exercise was decreased by 19% in the beetroot juice group. For severe intensity exercise, the amount of oxygen needed to support the exercise was decreased by 23% and the time to exhaustion was increased by 16% in the beetroot juice group. Those effects were statistically significant.

Study # 2: In this study (Kelly et al, Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol., 304: R73-83, 2013) untrained older adults (aged 60-70) were given beetroot juice or a placebo for 3 days and then put through a treadmill exercise test. Resting blood pressure and oxygen uptake kinetics during exercise were significantly improved in the beetroot group.

Study # 3: In this study (Breese et al, Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol., 305: R1441-14505, 2013) physically active subjects were given beetroot juice or a placebo for 6 days and then put through a double step exercise protocol involving a transition from stationary to moderate intensity exercise followed immediately by a transition from moderate intensity to severe intensity exercise. No significant differences were observed between the beetroot juice group and the placebo group during the transition from stationary to moderate intensity exercise. However, for the transition from moderate intensity to high intensity exercise both efficiency of oxygen utilization and endurance were increased by 22% in the beetroot juice group.

does beetroot juice improve exercise performance

Study # 4: In this study (Pinna et al, Nutrients, 6: 605-615, 2014) moderately trained male master swimmers were given beetroot juice for 6 days. Swimming tests were conducted at the beginning and end of the 6 day period. After 6 days of beetroot juice supplementation, the workload was increased by 6% and the energy cost was decreased by 12% when the swimmers were performing at their maximal capacity.

Studies # 5 & 6: These studies (Lanceley et al, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47: doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093073.8; Hoon et al, Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform., 9: 615-620, 2014) were both done with highly trained athletes and no significant improvement in performance was observed. This is fully consistent with previous studies utilizing arginine supplements.

In short, these studies suggest that beetroot juice is similar to arginine supplements in that:

  • It improves exercise performance at moderate to severe exercise levels, but not at low exercise levels.
  • It improves exercise performance for untrained or moderately trained athletes, but not for highly trained athletes.
  • The effects are modest. However, you should keep in mind that even a 20% increase in endurance during high intensity exercise can result in a significant incremental increase in muscle mass if the exercise is repeated on a regular basis.

What Are The Strengths & Weaknesses Of These Studies?

Strengths: The strengths of these studies are:

  • Most of the studies were double-blind, placebo controlled studies
  • The studies were internally consistent and were consistent with previous studies done with arginine supplements.

Weaknesses: The weaknesses of these studies are:

  • The studies were all very small and were of short duration. Larger, longer term studies are needed to validate the results of these studies.

So, are there health benefits of beetroot juice for athletes?

The Bottom Line:

  1. Nitrates and arginine are both converted to nitric oxide in the body, so it is plausible that they will have similar effects.
  1. Arginine supplements have been around for years and appear to have a modest affect on exercise performance with untrained and moderately trained athletes, but not with highly trained athletes. This is most likely because one of the effects of training is to increase blood supply to the muscles. Thus, highly trained athletes already have enhanced blood flow to the muscles, and the effect of arginine supplementation on blood flow is less noticeable.
  1. Nitrate supplements are just starting to be evaluated for their effects on exercise performance. Most of the research so far has been with beetroot juice, but the results should be similar for any naturally sourced nitrate supplement.
  1. The clinical studies published so far suggest that nitrate supplements are similar to arginine supplements in that they have a modest effect on high intensity exercise in untrained and moderate trained athletes (people like most of us). They appear to have little or no effect for highly trained athletes. Thus, the effect of nitrate supplements on exercise appears to be very similar to the effect of arginine supplements on exercise.
  1. Most of the studies performed to date have been small, short duration studies. They need to be validated by larger, longer term studies.
  1. If the effects of nitrate supplementation published to date are accurate they should be most beneficial for weight training and high intensity exercise because even modest increases in exercise endurance can result in an incremental increase in muscle mass and strength over time.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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