Brightly colored vegetables associated with longevity

Can a Carotenoid-Rich Diet Help Boost Women's Health?

Can a Carotenoid-Rich Diet Help Boost Women's Health?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Live long and prosper. That's the goal, right? And for many women, they have the live long part down. Prosper, however, is debatable. Although women tend to outlive men, they unfortunately are more likely to suffer from certain age-related illnesses that men don't get as frequently, in what's known as the "mortality-morbidity paradox." More specifically, women are susceptible to autoimmune diseases and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's and dementia.

There is a way to fight this however, that's as easy as eating a healthy diet! More specifically, eating the rainbow.

In a review paper of existing literature, published in Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers looked at the effects of dietary patterns that include plenty of carotenoids (the compound responsible for the bright array of colors in some fruits and vegetables) on women's health. They found that higher carotenoid intake could help prevent women from developing a wide variety of health conditions.

And as women are more susceptible to these conditions, there is good reason to incorporate these nutrients into your everyday diet!

What are carotenoids?

It's not a coincidence that the word "carrot" can be found in the word "carotenoid." Indeed, carotenoids are antioxidants found in food (and carrots happen to be a brilliant source of beta-carotene, which is one form of this nutrient.)

Carotenoids are lipid-soluble, meaning they dissolve in fat. They are also a precursor to an important vitamin we all need: vitamin A. That means consuming dietary carotenoids is critical to make sure we're getting the vitamins we need to live a healthy life.

The most common carotenoids in a standard North American diet include:

  1. A-carotene (alpha-carotene)
  2. β-carotene (beta-carotene)
  3. β-cryptoxanthin (beta-cryptoxanthin)
  4. Lutein
  5. Zeaxanthin
  6. Lycopene

The first three on this list are what's known as "provitamin A carotenoids" and are able to be converted by the body to vitamin A in the form of retinol, which is important for vision, cell health, skin health and even immune health. While all of these carotenoids deserve a place on your plate, higher lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin levels in particular were found to be inversely associated with all-cause dementia.

Which foods have the most carotenoids?

So which foods contain the most carotenoids? The advice to "eat the rainbow" is a good rule of thumb—particularly regarding the colors red, orange (such as the aforementioned carrots) and yellow. These different pigments tend to correspond with different types of carotenoids.

Orange foods, for example, are high in a type of carotenoid called α-carotenes. Popular choices include:

  • Carrots

  • Butternut squash

  • Tangerines

  • Sweet potatoes

Other foods with a good alpha-carotene content include avocados and bananas.

Foods that are more yellow-orange in hue, meanwhile, are good sources of beta-carotenes. You can also get beta-carotene from certain leafy vegetables:

  • Cantaloupe

  • Winter squash

  • Lettuce

  • Spinach

  • Broccoli

Beta-cryptoxanthin, meanwhile, is in brightly colored tropical fruit, all of which tends to be orange or yellow in hue:

  • Oranges

  • Papayas

  • Peaches

  • Tangerines

  • Yellow and orange maize

Ready to see red? The carotenoid lycopene tends to be in red fruits, with a significant source of lycopene being found in tomatoes (which is botanically a fruit, even though we think of it as a vegetable) and tomato-based foods:

In addition to tomatoes (fresh is best), these lycopene-rich fruits deserve a spot on your menu:

  • Pink grapefruit

  • Pumpkin (also a good source of α-carotene)

  • Pink guava

  • Watermelon

And finally, go green to nourish your body with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are abundant in:

  • Swiss chard

  • Kale

  • Parsley

  • Green peas

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Asparagus

What are the 3 health benefits of carotenoids?

There are actually more than three health benefits offered by a diet rich in beta-carotene, lycopene, and other carotenoids, but the three most legendary ones include:

  1. Eye health
  2. Brain health
  3. Healthy bones

Lutein and zeaxanthin are particularly notable for their roles in supporting eye health and brain health because these carotenoids accumulate in the eyes and brain specifically and are absorbed into the macula of the eye. According to the review article, dietary lutein and zeaxanthin can help fight age-related macular degeneration and are linked to lower prevalence of cataracts.

We've all heard that the eyes are the window to the soul; it turns out that eye health is a window into brain health. That's because lutein and zeaxanthin are also known for their ability to both improve aspects of brain health like memory and executive functioning, and visual processing speed and problem solving. Perhaps not surprisingly, the research found a strong link between conditions that affect women's central nervous system health and the healthful role of lutein and zeaxanthin.

In fact, one systematic review of the effect of macular pigment carotenoids on various cognitive functions found a direct positive relationship between macular pigments, dietary patterns that included plenty of lutein and zeaxanthin, and cognitive function—specifically, memory/processing speed and attention and reasoning. These and other cognitive abilities were found to all be related to macular pigment density and healthy intake of these dietary carotenoids.

Other ways carotenoids benefit women

Dietary intake of these nutrients can benefit women in other ways, according to the review. Beta-carotene may reduce the risk of some types of cancer, heart disease and stroke. In fact, beta-carotene's anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidant power have been thought to benefit cardiovascular health in general—and to have a healthy life, as they say, you gotta have heart!

Provitamin A carotenoids are also known for being protective against oxidative stress as well as having immune-modulating properties. The Hammonds noted in their findings that studies have even found a correlation between high serum carotenoid levels and reduced risk of major conditions like ovarian and breast cancer, sarcopenia, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. And if there wasn't enough to love, high serum carotenoid levels were also found to reduce skin wrinkling!

Not just for older women

Not only are carotenoids essential to women aging well, they're also a good idea when you're younger. For one thing, women (and men for that matter) of all ages benefit from foods high in vitamins and antioxidants (and brightly colored foods that contain lycopene, lutein, etc., certainly check those boxes.) Beta-carotene and other carotenoid foods aside, bright-colored foods will be high in other vitamins--vitamin C, vitamin E, antioxidants, as well as additional nutrients that are important to a healthy life.

For another, carotenoid intake may even protect the next generation. A study of pregnant women in China monitored the associations between intake of dietary carotenoids and the risk of developing preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication that is characterized by high blood pressure. Researchers assessed a 79-item food frequency list questionnaire and found that intake of total carotenoids was negatively associated with the odds of developing preeclampsia, concluding that high intake of total carotenoids may be associated with low preeclampsia risk.

The results of these studies affirm the findings of the review paper in Nutritional Neuroscience, noting that there is a "high probability to help and low probability of harm" in targeting beneficial carotenoid intake in women, thus supporting the importance of carotenoid foods for women.

Proof That "You Are What You Eat"

What's significant about this review is that it reaffirms the connection between brain health and diet, noted one of the authors of the study, Professor Billy Hammond of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences Faculty at the University of Georgia.

Since the brain is made up of around 60% fat and vulnerable to oxidative stress, fat-soluble and antioxidant packed carotenoids are vital tools in fighting various health conditions, with Hammond concluding that, "the old adage that you are what you eat is literally true. What you eat influences the composition of your brain and the chemicals and hormones that are involved in its function."

How could you eat more carotenoids?

Eating more carotenoids is as simple as incorporating various fruits and vegetables into your diet! Dietary carotenoids have been found to not only improve outcomes on various health conditions, but eating more vegetables in general has also been found to reduce the risk of dementia.

And if keeping disease off your doorstep isn't enough of a reason to eat more diversely, recent research has also suggested that eating a healthy diet made up of colorful foods is a major component of simply living longer. And who doesn't want healthful longevity?

And there's even more good news if you're an avocado lover! Avocados aren't just rich in carotenoids, but the healthy fatty acids in avocado can also help enhance absorption of other carotenoids, making them a great compliment to any healthy dish. If you aren't the biggest fan of fruits and vegetables, however, you can up your carotenoid intake in the form of dietary nutrients such as a lycopene or beta-carotene capsule or tablet.

Any form of dietary intake of these carotenoids will set you up for success, so you really can live long and prosper!



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.