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Lycopene: A Woman's Heart's Best Friend

According to a new study conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers in Boston, lycopene has been shown to significantly reduce a woman's risk of heart disease-the Number 1 cause of death in women. This research, which analyzed data from the Women's Health Study, was presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology.

Researchers analyzed nearly 1,000 blood samples, approximately half from women who developed cardiovascular disease and the remainder from women who did not. After taking into account coronary risk factors, such as history of high cholesterol and physical inactivity, researchers discovered that women with the highest plasma levels of lycopene demonstrated a 33% lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest levels. Lycopene, a carotenoid and antioxidant that is found in tomatoes and other red-hued members of the World's Healthiest Foods, has also been shown to offer men significant protection against prostate cancer and atherosclerosis. This new study demonstrates that lycopene is just as important for women as it is for men.

"This is the first large-scale study to examine the role that lycopene may play in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease exclusively in women," said lead researcher Howard Sesso, Sc.D., instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "The body of research on lycopene in other conditions such as prostate cancer is more advanced, but the 33% risk reduction in our study has compelled us to further investigate lycopene's power in combating heart disease."

Other recent studies have also linked lycopene with a reduced risk of heart disease, including several discussed in an earlier World's Healthiest Foods News story, Lycopene-Potent Antioxidant Protection posted March 6, 2002. In addition to these studies, a review compiled by researchers at the University of Toronto demonstrated that serum and tissue lycopene levels are inversely related with chronic disease risk, and dietary intakes of tomatoes and tomato products containing lycopene are associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Results of yet another study, this one conducted in Finland and entitled "The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor," suggested that low serum levels of lycopene may be associated with an increased risk of atherosclerotic vascular events.

Michael Gaziano, M.D., director of cardiovascular epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and author of the Harvard lycopene study noted that although "there are no dietary recommendations for lycopene, yet the research suggests that women should aim to consume more lycopene-rich foods as a prudent measure in the prevention of chronic diseases."

Ready to take Dr. Gaziano's advice to make lycopene-rich foods a frequent part of your healthy way of eating? This heart healthy nutrient is abundant in a variety of the World's Healthiest Foods: Tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene: 100 grams of fresh tomatoes contain between .88-4.20 mg of lycopene, but cooked tomatoes, especially when they are concentrated as they are in tomato paste, are an even better source: 100 grams of tomato paste provides between 5.40-150 mg of lycopene. And be sure to add a little olive oil-by eating lycopene-rich foods with some healthful fat, the absorption of this protective nutrient is significantly increased: 100 grams of sun-dried tomato in oil provides 46.5 mg of lycopene.

In addition to tomatoes, other members of the World's Healthiest Foods can help protect your heart with lycopene, such as apricots (.86 mg of lycopene per 100 grams), pink grapefruit (3.36 mg of lycopene per 100 grams), fresh guava (5.40 mg of lycopene per 100 grams), fresh papaya (2.00-5.30 mg of lycopene per 100 grams), and watermelon (2.30-7.20 mg of lycopene per 100 grams).

For suggestions as to how to enjoy these lycopene-rich members of the World's Healthiest Foods more often, click on the Recipe Assistant, select any of these foods on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

References:The Vitamin Nutrition Information Service (VNIS), Lycopene May Improve Women's Heart Health, April 4, 2002. Rao AV, Agarwal S. Role of antioxidant lycopene in cancer and heart disease. J Am Coll Nutr 2000 Oct;19(5):563-9.Rissanen TH, Voutilainen S, Nyyssonen K, Lakka TA, Sivenius J, Salonen R, Kaplan GA, Salonen JT. Low serum lycopene concentration is associated with an excess incidence of acute coronary events and stroke: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Br J Nutr 2001 Jun;85(6):749-54. Lu QY, Hung JC, Heber D, Go VL, Reuter VE, Cordon-Cardo C, Scher HI, Marshall JR, Zhang ZF. Inverse associations between plasma lycopene and other carotenoids and prostate cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2001 Jul;10(7):749-56.Rissanen T, Voutilainen S, Nyyssonen K, Salonen R, Salonen JT Low plasma lycopene concentration is associated with increased intima-media thickness of the carotid artery wall. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol, 2000 Dec; 20(1`2):2677-81.