Of all the different phytochemicals, we probably know the most about carotenoids. Carotenoids are plant pigments, giving many fruits and vegetables their red, orange, or yellow colour. Some types of carotenoids, such as alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, are actually converted into vitamin A in the body. You eat plenty of those when you munch on carrots, leafy greens, and other yellow or orange vegetables like broccoli, pumpkin, and sweet potato.
The more mysterious carotenoids are lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. They cannot be converted into vitamin A like other carotenoids. But like the others, they may flex their nutritional power as antioxidants – or maybe not. How these carotenoids work is still not clear, though research has revealed some promising potential health benefits.
Lycopene is the vegetable pigment that puts the red blush on tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and bell peppers. Studies have found that men who eat a lot of lycopene-rich tomatoes and tomato products were less likely to develop prostate cancer than men with lower intakes of the red phytochemical. Lycopene may also help to slow the progression of existing prostate cancer. As with any research into the benefits of fruits and vegetables, the goods on lycopene should be considered just one small piece of the nutrition puzzle. You should eat tomatoes because they also burst with vitamin C, folate, and potassium. Any other potential benefits are just sauce on the spaghetti!
Lutein and zeaxanthin
Green, leafy vegetables need lutein and zeaxanthin to shield them from too much blue light, which is part of the visible light of the sun – the light that makes the sky look blue. Our eyes may be damaged by too much blue light. And as lutein and zeaxanthin protect spinach, so might they protect our eyes. Studies suggest that eating a diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin may slow the progression of age-related eye damage like macular degeneration and cataracts. You can find these two visionary carotenoids in lots of leafy greens.
What to eat to get more carotenoids:
- tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato soup
- pink grapefruit
- bell peppers
- spinach, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens
- summer and winter squash
- Brussels sprouts
- sweet potatoes
Tip: Heating tomatoes in oil makes lycopene more available to be absorbed by your body.
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