In the 1950s, a Hungarian cancer therapist, Dr. Alexander Ferenczi, began experimenting with beets as a potential treatment for cancer. He prescribed a diet of red beetroot, raw or juiced, to his patients, most of whom were at advanced stages of the disease. In several cases, according to Dr. Ferenczi, cancerous tumors disappeared and the patients fully recovered from their cancers. However, most of his claims for the beet were not taken seriously at the time by the medical community. Who could have believed that such an arguably ugly root could promote such powerful healing?
Purple For a Reason
Today, researchers are taking a fresh look at the beet — a root vegetable known for its brilliant crimson-purple color — and its cancer-fighting potential. The compound that gives beets their characteristic hue, betacyanin, has proven to be a cancer-fighting agent, especially against colon cancer. In animal studies, diets high in beet fiber increased special immune cells in the colon responsible for detecting and eliminating abnormal cells, which led to fewer pre-cancerous changes in the colon. Beetroot extract has been shown to inhibit the growth of tumors, thereby preventing chemically induced cancers of the liver, skin, spleen, and lungs.
Beets may promote colon health in other ways, too. Beets are one of the richest sources of glutamine, a detoxifying amino acid essential to the health and maintenance of the intestinal tract. A deficiency of glutamine creates a state of imbalance of digestive bacteria, leaving an individual vulnerable to unfriendly organisms or the passage of bacteria into the bloodstream. Adding beets to your diet thus assists in keeping your digestive and immune systems healthy.
Good for the Heart and Liver
The powerhouse root also holds promise for staving off cardiovascular disease. In animal studies, beet-rich diets have led to benefits in cholesterol levels. In one study, total cholesterol dropped 30 percent, while HDL, or "good" cholesterol increased significantly. Betaine, a substance found abundantly in beets, reduces markers of chronic inflammation, which damages blood vessels and can lead to conditions including heart disease, Alzheimer's, and Type-2 diabetes.
Betaine also benefits the liver. It may help protect against fatty deposits in the liver, such as those that result from chronic alcohol use. Studies have shown that diets high in beets increase the activity of two detoxifying enzymes in the liver, which protect liver cells from free radical attack.
Try the Root
Before beets were domesticated, ancient people in North Africa and Asia ate only the beet greens and dispensed entirely of the root. Today, we know better than to bypass the root, but beet greens are power food in their own right. Concentrated with vitamin C, iron, and calcium, as well as carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein/zeaxanthin, beet greens shouldn't be relegated to the trash can. They can be cooked up and enjoyed like spinach.
Though available year round, beets are sweetest and most tender during their peak season, from June to October. Popular in Old World dishes like Russian borscht, beets are enjoying a resurgence in popularity among modern chefs. While heirloom varieties like white, golden yellow and candy stripe beets make for pretty dishes, only red beets have the cancer-fighting compound betacyanin. Given their substantial health benefits, chances are they'll be making a resurgence in doctors' prescriptions as well.