When it comes to vitamins, we tend to think in terms of the alphabet. There’s vitamin A and vitamin C. There is a whole array of different B vitamins. Plus…there’s vitamin D and E. Get enough of each of these and you’ve got your bases covered, right?
Not so fast. Some vitamins are more complex than you realize.
Of course you’ve heard that carrots are good for your eyes. That’s because they contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, which is good for your eyes.
But there’s more to vitamin A than beta-carotene or a simple multivitamin can provide.
Beta-carotene is just one of them. It falls into a much larger family of nutrients called carotenoids.
Carotenoids are often overlooked and still not very well understood by most people. Many, but not all, carotenoids are related to vitamin A. There are literally hundreds of different carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables. Beta-carotene is just one of them.
Carotenoids are actually what give fruits and vegetables their colors. Many carotenoids provide health benefits. Some are famous for the way they help the eyes, but carotenoids are good for your entire body, too.
In general carotenoids work as antioxidants in your body. They help to neutralize free radicals and clean up after the damage that they do. Because your eyes contain such delicate cells, they are very vulnerable to free radical damage. By getting a variety of carotenoids, you’ll help protect your eye cells from that damage.
Carotenoids enhance the overall function of your body’s immune system. Some carotenoids like alpha carotene and beta-carotene also promote vitamin A production, which further supports the immune system.
In one study, a diet rich in beta-carotene and lycopene proved to help protect skin cells from damage by the sun’s ultra-violet rays. Researchers believe that diets rich in these two carotenoids will help protect against skin cancer.[i]
In another study, researchers found that lycopene plays a protective role against heart disease. Lycopene helps prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and hardening the arteries.[ii] Cholesterol oxidation is a major contributor to heart disease.
The carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein help lower the risk of macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. These two nutrients can reduce your risk of this devastating disease by 35%.[iii]
A Rainbow of Carotenoids Right in Your Fridge
Most people have heard of beta-carotene. Other important carotenoids include alpha carotene, anthocyanin, cryptoxanthin, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. In all, there are over 600 carotenoids that we know of. There’s just no way to get the variety that your body craves from a multivitamin.
You are much better off getting your carotenoids from fruits and vegetables. Orange and yellow produce like pumpkins, squash, carrots, mangoes, and peaches are a rich source of lutein. Red and pink produce like tomatoes and grapefruit give you lots of different carotenoids including lycopene. Green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and zucchini are a good source of zeaxanthin. Blue and purple produce like eggplant, blueberries and plums are rich sources of anthocyanin.
When you eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, you’ll provide your body with a range of carotenoids. You’ll also be adding fiber and a whole host of other vitamins to your diet.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
[i] Stahl W, Seis H. “Carotenoids and Flavonoids Contribute to Nutritional Protection against Skin Damage from Sunlight,” Mol Biotechnol 2007; 37(1): 26-30
[ii] Bose KS, Agrawal BK.”Effect of lycopene from cooked tomatoes on serum antioxidant enzymes, lipid peroxidation rate and lipid profile in coronary heart disease,” Singapore Med J 2007; 48(5): 415-20
[iii] SanGiovanni JP, et al. “The relationship of dietary carotenoid and vitamin A, E, and C intake with age-related macular degeneration in a case-control study: AREDS Report No. 22,” Arch Ophthalmol 2007; 125(9): 1225-32
Photo Credit: carotenoidsociety.org