An antioxidant responsible for the red coloring of certain fruits and vegetables, lycopene appears to offer a number of health benefits. For instance, following a diet rich in lycopene has been linked to reduced risk for several major diseases (including certain types of cancer). Other possible health benefits of lycopene include improved lung health.
Sources of Lycopene
Tomatoes and tomato products (such as tomato sauce) are considered the top dietary sources of lycopene. Other food sources include watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, apricots, and guava. Although lycopene is also available in supplement form, the health benefits of lycopene supplements have not yet been extensively studied.
Benefits of Lycopene
Here's a look at the science behind lycopene's health benefits:
1) Prostate Cancer
In a number of population studies, researchers have found that a diet high in lycopene from tomato-based foods may be linked with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. What's more, in a 2009 review of eight studies on lycopene and prostate cancer, researchers found that lycopene intake was linked to a reduction in levels of prostate-specific antigen (a protein that often occurs at elevated levels in prostate cancer patients). However, the review's authors caution that it's too soon to draw a firm conclusion on the benefits of lycopene supplements for prostate cancer prevention.
2) Lung Cancer
Intake of lycopene may benefit lung health, according to a large study published in 2000. Analyzing data on 124,207 adults who were followed for 10 to 12 years, researchers found that lung cancer risk was significantly lower among those who consumed a diet high in a variety of carotenoids (a class of antioxidants that includes beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, in addition to lycopene).
3) Heart Disease
Following a diet rich in lycopene may offer some cardiovascular benefits, a 2003 study suggests. Sizing up the lycopene intake of 39,876 middle-aged and older women over the course of about seven years, scientists discovered that those who consumed the most lycopene had a lower cardiovascular disease risk than those who consumed the least lycopene. In a 2005 study of 499 men with cardiovascular disease and 499 age-matched men without cardiovascular disease, however, researchers found that higher blood levels of lycopene weren't associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
A small study published in 2000 indicates that lycopene may benefit individuals with exercise-induced asthma. After a week of taking 30 mg of lycopene in supplement form daily, 11 out of 20 participants experienced a significant increase in protection against exercise-induced asthma.
Should You Increase Your Lycopene Intake?
Due to the lack of definitive evidence of lycopene's health benefits, it's important not to rely solely on lycopene for the prevention or treatment of any health condition. Furthermore, additional research needs to be conducted before lycopene supplementation can be recommended. Nonetheless, including lycopene-rich fruits and vegetables in a balanced diet may help increase your defense against certain diseases and offer some benefits to your overall health.
American Cancer Society. "Lycopene". November 2008.
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