The first group we are going to look at is carotenoids.
What Are Carotenoids?
The pigments that give some fruits and vegetables their rich red, orange and yellow colours are called carotenoids. These natural antioxidants are also potent disease fighters.
Although more than 600 carotenoid pigments are known it seems that only six of them are used in significant ways by the blood or tissues of your body. These are: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Which Foods Contain Carotenoids?
Carotenoids are present in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables but some foods have more concentrated levels. Alpha-carotene is found in carrots and pumpkin, lycopene is abundant in red fruits such as watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, pomegranate can cooked tomatoes. Lutein and zeaxanthin are plentiful in pumpkin and red peppers and cryptoxanthin is abundant in mangoes, oranges and peaches. To prevent disease it is advisable to ensure all these foods are part of your diet.
Benefits of CarotenoidsThe main benefit of carotenoids lies in their antioxidant effect, protecting your cells from damage by unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals. Although carotenoids are similar to each other each acts on a specific type of body tissue.
Carotenoids may guard against certain types of cancer by limiting the abnormal growth of cells. Lycopene for example appears to inhibit the development of prostate cancer. A study conducted by Harvard University found that men who ate 10 or more servings a week of tomato based foods (tomatoes are the richest source of dietary lycopene and cooked tomatoes contain five times as much) cut their risk of prostate cancer by a whopping 45%. Lycopene may also be effective against cancers of the stomach and digestive tract.
Studies have shown that high intakes of alpha-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin decrease the risk of lung cancer (so very important for smokers) and that cryptoxanthin and alpha-carotene lower the risk of cervical cancer.
Carotenoids may also be helpful in the fight against heart disease. In a survey of 1,300 elderly people, those who consumed the most carotenoid rich foods were found to have half the risk of developing heart disease and a 75% lower chance of having a heart attack than those who ate the least amounts. This was the case even after taking into account other risk factors such as smoking and high cholesterol levels. Scientists believe that all carotenoids but especially alpha-carotene and lycopene, block the formation of LDL cholesterol (that's the bad one).
Lutein and zeaxanthin promote clear vision by absorbing the sun's harmful ultra violet rays and neutralising free radicals in the retina (the light sensitive portion of your eye). This may reduce the risk of macular degeneration, an age related vision disorder that is the number one cause of blindness in older adults. Other carotenoids may prevent damage to the eye's lens, decreasing the risk of cataracts. This is clearly ancient knowledge and the reason why our mothers told us eating our carrots would help us to see in the dark.
Some studies, in their early stages, have identified a link between low carotenoid consumption and menstrual problems whilst other studies have found that, even after the onset of cancer, a diet high in carotenoids may improve the prognosis.
DownsideThe only downside is that high consumption of carotenoids is likely to turn your skin orange which is particularly evident on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. Still it saves on the false tan! And if you do go orange then just reduce your consumption.
To Get The BenefitsMake sure your diet contains a variety of red, orange and yellow foods every day. Choose from tomatoes, oranges, peaches, mango, sweet potato, cantaloupe melon, watermelon, guava, red peppers, yellow peppers, carrots, pumpkin, pomegranate, strawberries, raspberries, physalis, sharon fruit, pink grapefruit, corn and apricots.
Try snacking on raw carrots or having them with houmous.