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How can I get more lycopene in my diet?

If you read the recent article on lycopene in the Food in the News section of our website, you already know that a Harvard Medical School research study found that lycopene significantly reduced the risk of heart disease among women. In addition, lycopene has been shown to help protect men from prostate cancer and atherosclerosis.

Lycopene is a member of the carotenoid family of phytochemicals and is the natural pigment responsible for the deep red color of several fruits. The health benefits of this nutrient are related to its antioxidant activity. In fact, laboratory experiments indicate that lycopene is a more effective antioxidant than other carotenoids, including beta-carotene. Lycopene is especially effective at quenching a free radical called singlet oxygen. Singlet oxygen is a highly reactive free radical formed during normal metabolic processes. Singlet oxygen can react with polyunsaturated fatty acids, one of the major constituents of cell membranes. Since lycopene is commonly located exactly in this spot - the cell membranes - it can play an especially important role in preventing oxidative damage to the membrane lipid. Lycopene can influence the thickness, strength, and fluidity of cell membranes, and these qualities of cell membranes are critical to our health. Cell membranes are the gatekeepers for our cells, allowing nutrients in, while preventing toxins from entering and facilitating the removal of cellular garbage. Maintaining the integrity of cell membranes is therefore a key factor in the prevention of disease.

Lycopene has also been found to play a role in the prevention of heart disease by inhibiting free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. Before cholesterol can be deposited in the plaques that harden and narrow arteries, it must be oxidized by free radicals. With its powerful antioxidant activity, lycopene can prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidized.

In addition to its antioxidant activity, lycopene has been shown to suppress the growth of tumors in test tube studies and in studies on animals. One of the ways that lycopene may limit tumor growth is by stimulating cell to cell communication. Researchers now believe that poor communication between cells is one of the causes of the abnormal growth of cells, a condition which ultimately leads to the development of cancerous tumors.

It is clear that foods containing lycopene can make an important contribution to your health. Fortunately, getting more lycopene in your diet may be easier than you think. The reason: lycopene is found in many red and pink fruits, most notably tomatoes, apricots, guava, watermelon, papaya, and pink grapefruit.

Below are several suggestions for meals, side dishes and snacks packed with lycopene:

1. Make it a habit to add fresh tomatoes or grapefruit sections to your green salads.

2. When you eat pasta, use marinara sauce instead of an alfredo sauce. You’ll reduce the amount of saturated fat in your meal, and you’ll increase your lycopene intake.

3. Instead of a green salad, serve a refreshing tomato-based salad such as a Mediterranean salad with tomatoes, olives, garlic and feta cheese, or a tomato-cucumber salad.

4. Make a quick salsa using chopped tomatoes, chopped onions, and chili peppers. Serve with chips as a snack, or as part of a Southwestern meal.

5. Serve apricots (fresh or dried) on hot cereal.

6. For a change from your morning orange juice, occasionally try grapefruit juice or guava juice.

7. Watermelon is a delicious summer treat, either as a snack or as an accompaniment to a summer meal.

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