Here's another reason to savor tomatoes: A recent study published in the journal Neurology finds they may help lower your risk of ischemic stroke--blockage of a brain artery that starves cells of oxygen and causes them to die.
"We don't understand it entirely yet, but the lycopene in tomatoes may have specific properties that protect the cell in a way other antioxidants may not," says Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Lycopene, a carotenoid that gives tomatoes their brilliant red color, is also a powerful antioxidant that eliminates dangerous free radical cells that cause damage to our bodies. Past research has shown that lycopene may help lower the risk of cancer.
Researchers found that men with the greatest amounts of lycopene in their blood had a 55 percent lower chance of having a stroke, and a 59 percent reduction in strokes due to blood clots. Researchers suggest that lycopene, in addition to attacking free radicals, also reduces inflammation and cholesterol, improves immune function, and prevents blood from clotting. That may be key to reducing strokes, which are caused by blockages in blood flow to the brain (from clotting) or by brain blood vessels that burst.
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Dr. Giovannucci says most of that is plausible and very promising.
"However," he cautions, "we have to figure out which beneficial results are due to lycopene and which are due to other healthy lifestyle habits."
So how much lycopene does it take to protect against stroke? Dr. Giovannucci recommends at least 10,000 micrograms of lycopene per day. That sounds staggering, but plenty of lycopene is found in common foods.
Not all foods with lycopene are created equal. Lycopene is better absorbed in the body when it's in a food with some fat, such as tomato sauce. But don't start eating a diet predominantly containing tomatoes. Dr. Giovannucci says it's better to eat a variety of healthy foods and aim for the daily lycopene intake.
You may find it tempting to take a lycopene supplement, but Dr. Giovannucci says it's not the same.
"You may be getting the wrong form of lycopene. Also, there are compounds in food that may be part of what makes lycopene so beneficial," he explains.
Your best bet is sticking to a diet rich in tomato-based foods. It's cost-effective, it's easy, and it's not dangerous if you overdo it. Best of all, lycopene is likely in many of your favorite foods. -- Harvard Health Letter