We’re midway through a six-part guide to feeling good. Thus far, we’ve explored the importance of breathing, sleep, rest, pleasure, human connection and the nutritionist in me feels compelled to indulge in a couple of posts about food and mood.
Researchers now believe that many mood disorders, including depression, are not just brain disorders, but whole-body disorders, with chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation as a major risk factor.
Chronic inflammation arises as a result of many of the environmental stressors that we’ve talked about, such as poor diet and sleep, sedentary lifestyle, stress, negative thinking habits – all the usual culprits that you probably already know are important to address.
All of these factors influence our gut bacteria, which are critical to virtually every aspect of health including our brain function and mental health.
Beetroot to the rescue
The humble beetroot is a vegetable that in my experience is sorely overlooked by many a home cook. It’s a source of mood-boosting nutrients and in recent years there’s been growing interest in its potential utility as a health promoting and disease preventing functional food – not just in the area of mental health, but across the board.
Having worked in the NRL, I know professional athletes are using beetroot juice and fermented drinks like beet kvass to increase their levels of nitric oxide (NO) which improves athletic performance.
One of the primary ways we can reduce chronic inflammation and maintain mental health is to keep our toxic load in check by assisting our detoxification processes. This is fundamentally the liver’s job and simply put, beetroot is a wonder food for this important organ, mostly because of the rich purple colour, which is due to the presence of betalain pigments, namely betacyanin (red) and betaxanthin (yellow).
These phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants that help protect our cells from free radical damage and help increase what’s known as ‘phase 2’ detoxification in the liver, which in layman’s terms is often a bit of a bottleneck in the overall process of detoxification.
These wonderful pigments are very water soluble and tend to leach out easily whenever we cook beetroot. For this reason, it’s a good idea to cook beetroot with the skins in-tact and I’ve outlined my simple method for doing this, below.
A rich source of betaine
Another explanation for the powerful anti-inflammatory and detoxifying effects of beetroot is that it’s one of the richest dietary sources of betaine. Betaine is a compound that appears to have a beneficial effect on mental health for several reasons – one being that it promotes the synthesis of serotonin.
Along with B vitamins, like folate and vitamin B12, betaine is considered to be a ‘methyl donor’, which means it supports liver function, detoxification and cellular functioning.
More beetroot on the menu
When it comes to our health, knowledge is important, but practical application and changing our everyday habits is where the rubber hits the road. You may have been aware of the fact that beetroot is a nutritional powerhouse but is it on high rotation in your weekly menu?
It can be peeled and grated raw into salads, tossed raw or cooked into smoothies for a great burst of nourishing colour, or my favourite easy method – cooked in its skin.
I adore having plenty of prepped beetroot on hand for salads, dips and lunchboxes (thankfully the kids enjoy this wonderful vegetable as much as I do!) and so I’ve mastered the art of quick beetroot preparation – it’s become one of my weekly set-and-forget systems.
I’m all about kitchen systems that create efficiency and take the thinking out of meal preparation. I’m also a huge fan of meal ‘building’ rather than meal planning and by spending an hour or so bulk-cooking a few different elements at the start of the week, it dramatically reduces mid-week stress and helps me to get delicious meals on the table quickly and without much thinking or fuss.
My beetroot system
1. Chop the leaves off at the base of the stem and give the beetroots a quick rinse to remove any residual soil. Pop them in a saucepan with enough water to cover and simmer with the lid on for roughly an hour, depending on the size of the beets.
If you’d like to add some flavour – and let’s face it, most of us have grown up on tinned beets and have come to expect a little bit of sweetness – you can include a slurp of apple cider vinegar, a big pinch of salt and a tablespoon of your choice of sugar (I use rapadura). Don’t get too fussy about exact measurements – it’s just to take the edge off the fairly bland, earthy flavour of plain, boiled beets!
2. Once the beets have finished cooking, leave them on the stove and come back to them once they’ve cooled. I get my veggie box from local girls ‘Nurtured Earth’ on Monday afternoon, so I like to cook them that evening to prevent double-handling and they sit cooling in the pot, overnight. Alternatively, you can rinse them immediately after cooking in some cold water.
3. One by one, pick up the beets and massage the skin to remove it. You’ll find that it slips off effortlessly – a much more efficient process than peeling them raw! Store the beets in a pyrex container in the fridge and they’re ready for a quick dice into salads or can be blended with some nuts and spices for a delicious, easy dip.
This is one of my favourite easy beetroot salads, however once you have your prepped beets in the fridge, they will compliment virtually any salad! I like to eat seasonally and that means I rarely have tomatoes on hand throughout the cooler months. Cooked beets are a great alternative because they add moisture and sweetness to my salads.
A base of wild rocket
A few leaves of radicchio, sliced
60g feta cheese
Handful of walnuts, roasted and roughly chopped
Honey mustard dressing
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
½ tsp good quality salt
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the dressing: add all ingredients, except the olive oil to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake vigorously, ensuring the honey is fully dispersed before continuing. Add roughly half the olive oil and shake well, then the second half and repeat until incorporated.
Assemble the rocket first, then the beets and walnuts and crumble the cheese over the top. Add the dressing, toss to combine and enjoy!