Unlocking the Power of Lycopene
You may have heard something about lycopene in nutrition circles, perhaps a little about its link to tomatoes and dieting, but the chemical has a more important role in a healthy lifestyle than you might expect. The compound is definitely found in tomatoes, but its role goes far beyond making vegetables look red.
The human body cannot produce lycopene, so it needs to absorb the carotenoid from an outside source. Plants and fruits use the compound to protect themselves against oxidation and light decay. Lycopene has similar beneficial effects on the body, helping to neutralize toxins and keep digestive processes efficient. While some health food fads are based on flimsy evidence, a vast number of studies have been conducted on lycopene to prove its key antioxidant role.
Lycopene Benefits: The Basics
Carotenoid: What is a carotenoid? It is a type of phytochemical, a pigment that occurs naturally in a variety of different plants. Lycopene is a red pigment, which is why it is so abundant in tomatoes and similar vegetables. Most phytochemicals have some beneficial effect on the body. Besides being the sign of a fresh fruit or vegetable, they often have an antioxidant effect on the body.
Antioxidant: While many carotenoids are known for their role in vitamin A absorption, lycopene is famed for its powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants, as the name suggests, help remove oxygen ions that make up free radicals in the body, dangerous particles that damage cells the same way that oxygen turns iron to rust. Lycopene can render single oxygen free radicals inert, and has been shown to be more effective than popular antioxidants like beta-carotene.
Protection: Studies have shown that lycopene is linked to reduced risks of cancer, heart disease, and other problems that become prevalent as our bodies age. This is not a separate benefit from the antioxidant properties of the pigment. On the contrary, the more lycopene rejuvenates cells and prevents long-term cell damage, the more it is actively working to reduce instances of cancerous cells.
Easy Lycopene Sources
While lycopene is mostly identified with tomatoes and tasty tomato products, it can be found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Any raw food that has a red color to it probably contains some amount of lycopene. Run through common sources of the pigment and make sure you are including enough lycopene-rich foods in your diet. Also keep in mind that many lycopene-related foods can cause heartburn, so you may not want to pile on too many sources at one time.
Tomatoes: Raw tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, as are tomato variants like salsas and sun-dried tomatoes.
Processed Tomatoes: It sounds strange, but stewed tomatoes, tomato soup, tomato sauce, and ketchup all have higher lycopene rates than normal, raw tomatoes. In most cases, this is because heating up the tomatoes changes the way lycopene is stored, removing it from tomato cells and making it easier for the human body to absorb.
Watermelon: Yes, the red tinge to watermelon is also caused by Lycopene, and a good chunk of watermelon could provide you with more of the antioxidant than even the freshest tomato. If watermelon isn’t in season, consider other reddish fruits like grapefruit or apricots.
Beans: While beans may not seem like an obvious source of lycopene, they in fact contain a significant amounts of the carotenoid. Baked beans may make the Lycopene easier to absorb.
Red Pepper: At this point, it should not come as a surprise that red bell peppers contain the beneficial pigment.
Chicken: Just to make it easier for you, chicken is also a source of the pigment (not because chickens are red, but because of the nutrients chicken meat absorbs). Remember to use organic chicken whenever possible.
Make Lycopene Part of a Balanced Diet
Lycopene alone is a good antioxidant, but make sure it is part of a nutritious diet that is already low in saturated fats and high in fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise and a healthy, low-toxin lifestyle are also vital. The next time you eat tomatoes be sure you appreciate that lycopene fueled boost!