One of the greatest health superheroes to ever come along is lycopene, a form of carotenoid found in tomatoes. This antioxidant not only give tomatoes their red color but helps fight against free radicals, harmful substances that are produced when your body uses oxygen, such as when breathing, or when exposed to harsh substances like sunlight and cigarette smoke. No, breathing is not bad for us, but oxygen mixes with some things that cause damage like with rust on a car.
Free radical damage has been linked to certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. In the body, lycopene is deposited in the liver, lungs, prostate gland, colon and skin. Lycopene is added to some popular multivitamin-mineral supplements.
That's all fine and dandy, but what about eating tomatoes? Antioxidants consumed in food is generally absorbed and utilized much more easily and efficiently than when taken in pill form. Research shows that lycopene can be absorbed more efficiently by the body if processed into juice, sauces, paste and even ketchup. The process of heating tomatoes to make tomato products makes lycopene more easily absorbed by the body.
We are always finding new and important things in foods that can make us healthier. Why not first try making our diets as healthy and nutrient-rich as possible? Lycopene had always been in tomatoes, even before we found out it was there or what it did. It is also found in guava, watermelon, apricots, pink grapefruit and blood oranges.
Fruits and vegetables are abundant with other antioxidants like beta-carotene, polyphenols, vitamin E and vitamin C as well as other carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Vitamin C, found in foods like, potatoes, broccoli, oranges, strawberries and cabbage helps boost immunity, fights infection, protects against cancer, helps the absorption of iron from food, is good for skin, bones and teeth, and helps protect against heart disease.
Vitamin E is great for lowering the risk of macular degeneration, protecting against cancer, heart attacks and strokes and increasing "good" cholesterol known as HDL. Vitamin E (along with Vitamin C) can be helpful for preventing damage from polluted valley air. Good food sources of Vitamin E include wheat germ, soy beans, hazelnuts, olive oil, peanut butter, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, grapes, avocado, oats, barley, and free-range eggs.
Green tea is a source of another antioxidant known as catechins that can help against the development of heart disease and certain cancers. Red wine has also been shown to be beneficial as an antioxidant protecting against oxidative damage from high-fat diets. Even dark chocolate has high-quality polyphenol antioxidants that may have beneficial (as well as tasty) benefits, especially when combined with nuts.
Selenium is a mineral, not an antioxidant nutrient. It is, however, a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods like brown rice and whole grains are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries.
So a mixed diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and a little olive oil, with a couple of glasses of red wine followed by green tea and an almond dark chocolate bar may do the trick. Also, an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Maybe true, especially if it's a love apple (tomato) a day.
Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.
Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of C