The One Area of Nutrition Americans (Mostly) Get Right
According to a Fox News poll, Americans get one thing in their diets right:
Tomatoes are tied with carrots as America’s second favorite vegetable. (Fox says corn is first, but corn’s a grain. That leaves white potatoes as the Number One favorite veggie.)
And tomatoes are second only to potatoes in the volume they’re consumed.
In fact, I’m astounded so many people claim they like carrots. Tomatoes are found not only in salads but in many more cooked and fresh dishes than carrots. People eat many more tomato slices than carrot sticks. They consume tomatoes as pizza sauce, salsa, paste, puree, ketchup, juice, and in sandwiches from hamburgers to BLTs. I sometimes eat tomato sandwiches – just squirt on some mustard.
The United States grows $2 billion of tomatoes every year, mainly in California and Florida. Of course, tomatoes are also widely grown in vegetable gardens around the country. They’re our favorite backyard food crop.
That’s all good because tomatoes are a superfood.
They’re powerfully healthy, eaten both raw and cooked – even as spaghetti sauce.
The red color in tomatoes comes from the carotenoid phytonutrient lycopene.
You can find lycopene in other red fruits and vegetables, including guava and watermelon. But, obviously, tomatoes are the most convenient – as well as concentrated – source in our diets.
Partly this is because lycopene is strong, not fragile. Processing and cooking tomatoes don’t destroy the lycopene in them. In fact, cooking tomatoes makes their lycopene up to four times as bioavailable as that in raw tomatoes.
We All Know We’re Threatened
Because there are so many toxic chemicals and pollutants in our air, water, and food, many Americans buy expensive products that claim they will improve your health by “cleansing” you of toxins, without scientific backing.
Nevertheless, we do live in a world with tens of thousands of substances that have never been fully tested for their long-term health effects on human beings – either by themselves or when combined with everything else we encounter over our lifespans.
You can limit your exposure to many of these known toxins and potential toxins, but you can’t live your life in a sanitized bubble.
Therefore, we are all at risk. According to the American Lung Association, pollutants in our air contribute to birth defects, cancer, coughing and wheezing, reduced fertility, brain damage, and possibly cardiovascular disease.
And that’s just what we breathe.
Lycopene is Your Best “Cleanse”
In 2019, a scientific review examined the effectiveness of lycopene for defending our bodies against both man-made chemicals and the many natural toxins that also threaten us.
The toxins produced by some bacteria and fungi are “natural,” but still devastating to our health.
They concluded a high intake of lycopene decreases the risk from exposure to heavy metals, chemotherapy medicines, industrial chemical toxins, mycotoxins (mold), pesticides, and herbicides.
These substances are toxic because they cause oxidative stress. That means they release free radicals, which destroy our cells.
The oxidative damage done to your body’s protein contributes to chronic disease. Over time, it builds up, so your vital organs cannot function effectively or efficiently.
Free radicals also damage DNA, potentially causing cancer. This could help explain why people with high blood levels of lycopene from eating lots of tomatoes (and other vegetables containing carotenoids) have fewer cancers of the colon, rectum, pancreas, breast, and cervix – and especially of the prostate, lungs, and stomach.
Lycopene acts as an antioxidant-free radical scavenger in several ways.
It helps prevent the formation of free radicals.
It eliminates free radicals after they’re formed, neutralizing them and, therefore, preventing them from damaging your cells and tissues.
It also increases your levels of glutathione, your body’s natural and most powerful antioxidant.
Lycopene Safeguards Your Health by Limiting Inflammation
Lycopene and associated carotenoids modulate the inflammatory pathways.
One way lycopene prevents or reverses inflammation is by inhibiting nuclear factor-kappa B, the master key causing inflammation.
We don’t have a magic force field protecting us from toxins, but we can limit how much they hurt us by defending ourselves with great nutrition – so tomatoes are our best shield against a polluted world.
CAUTION: Many companies want to sell you lycopene supplements, but taking supernormally high doses of antioxidants artificially separated from their natural environments – that is, food – appears risky. Lycopene developed a reputation for treating prostate cancer. But when scientists studied this by giving patients high doses of lycopene supplements, their cases grew worse, not better. The researchers had to stop the study prematurely because so many men’s prostate cancer advanced so quickly.
When men have blood levels of lycopene from eating large amounts of tomatoes, the lycopene protects their DNA. At higher doses, it actually causes more DNA damage. In high doses, it acts as a PRO-oxidant, not an antioxidant. In one study, lycopene taken by itself upregulated procarcinogenic genes.
Tomatoes contain many phytonutrients. Some of them may be more powerful than lycopene by themselves. By taking them all together (that is – eating tomatoes), you benefit from the synergy of all their antioxidant powers working together.
Therefore, I strongly suggest you get plenty of lycopene from eating large amounts of tomatoes and tomato products.