Like other root vegetables, beets sometimes become maligned for their carbohydrate content. Low carb zealots will chuck beets and yams into the same camp as white bread and licorice whips. This is utter nonsense.
Looking simply at total carbohydrate or even Glycemic Index misses the nuance of our foods. Just as you would be insulted if someone took a single aspect of your personality and used it to completely define you, so too do I imagine these vegetables slighted when they get blanketly demonized.
While Glycemic index was an initially helpful tool to assess the impact of carbohydrates, it was far too simplistic to be realistically applicable. More applicable is the glycemic load, which takes into account a true portion size. You can read more about key differences between glycemic index and load here (note the sample menu leaves a lot to be desired IMO).
While beets score a 65 on the glycemic index (which is medium-high) it would take about 4 cups of diced, cooked beets to impact your glucose levels in this fashion. A serving of cooked beets, which is 1/2 cup, has a glycemic load of 6 (low). Per serving, beets don’t contain a lot of sugar (6 grams, to be precise), and the fiber helps mitigate the rise in blood sugar that would occur if you consumed the same amount in pure cane sugar.
Additionally, beets contain Alpha-lipoic acid and induce nitric oxide, both of which appear to have a positive impact on blood sugar regulation.
Cell and animal studies show that alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) can increase the ability for glucose to get into the cell, alleviating the negative impact of insulin resistance in diabetic animals (4). A meta-analysis indicates ALA supplementation can reduce fasting glucose and insulin levels (2). It’s important to note, however, that many supplements contain far more ALA than one would get from eating beets. I was unable to find a source indicating how much ALA one can expect to consume in a normal dose of beets.
However, nitric oxide, which beet supports, has also demonstrated benefit in insulin resistance (3). One study showed that consuming beet juice with glucose reduced the severity of blood sugar response compared to glucose alone (1). It was postulated that the increase in nitric oxide availability from nitrate-rich beet juice may play a role in increased insulin sensitivity, at least in the obese individuals studied.
Given that beets contain a low glycemic load, induce nitric oxide synthesis and contain some alpha-lipoic acid, there is no reason to fear consuming them. If you have diabetes, you can always test your individual reaction to beets by using your glucometer after a beet-rich meal to see precisely how your body responds to beets.
1) Beals, J. W., Binns, S. E., Davis, J. L., Giordano, G. R., Klochak, A. L., Paris, H. L., … & Bell, C. (2017). Concurrent beet juice and carbohydrate ingestion: influence on glucose tolerance in obese and nonobese adults. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2017.
2) Akbari, M., Ostadmohammadi, V., Lankarani, K. B., Tabrizi, R., Kolahdooz, F., Khatibi, S. R., & Asemi, Z. (2018). The effects of alpha-lipoic acid supplementation on glucose control and lipid profiles among patients with metabolic diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Metabolism, 87, 56-69.
3) Sansbury, B. E., & Hill, B. G. (2014). Regulation of obesity and insulin resistance by nitric oxide. Free radical biology and medicine, 73, 383-399.
4) Rochette, L., Ghibu, S., Muresan, A., & Vergely, C. (2015). Alpha-lipoic acid: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential in diabetes. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 93(12), 1021–1027. doi:10.1139/cjpp-2014-0353