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4 reasons to add papaya to your diet

4 reasons to add papaya to your diet

These days, most consumers have convenient access to various fresh fruits and vegetables, from nutrient-packed avocados to brilliantly colored berries.  But, for many, the papaya tops them all.  A tropical fruit indigenous to Mexico, papaya can truly be described as a "feast for the senses."  When ripe, the outer skin is streaked with flaming reds, oranges, and golds, while the flesh within is a bright reddish-orange with a creamy consistency and a mellow, sweet taste.

Not only do papayas offer great nutrition, but studies have shown that they can prevent or improve certain chronic diseases.  Let's look at some of papaya's most impressive health benefits.

Protect vision and fight age-related macular degeneration

Fresh, ripe papayas are an excellent source of lutein and zeaxanthin, a pair of carotenoids (natural plant pigments) with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting properties.  Lutein and zeaxanthin are particularly effective at combating age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a progressive degeneration in the cells of the retina.  AMD is a common cause of vision impairment and blindness - particularly in people over 65.

In an extensive scientific review published in Nutrients in 2018, the authors credited lutein - whether consumed in food or through supplementation - with improving and even preventing age-related macular degeneration.  Studies have shown that both lutein and zeaxanthin act against AMD and protect photoreceptive cells in the eye by filtering out harmful "blue" light from computer screens and TVs - making papaya a wise dietary choice for our technologically-intensive age.

Promote digestion and relieve IBS

Papayas are rich in papain, a proteolytic enzyme that promotes efficient digestion by breaking down protein chains in food.  In fact, a time-honored use for papaya is as a meat tenderizer!

These succulent fruits are also high in dietary fiber, which helps prevent constipation while speeding the elimination of toxins, carcinogens, and waste from the body.

In tropical countries, stomach-soothing papaya is a trusted home remedy for constipation, heartburn, and irritable bowel symptoms - and multiple placebo-controlled studies have supported this traditional wisdom.  In an older but still influential study published in Neurological and Endocrinological Letters, scientists found that volunteers with IBS who were given 20 ml of a papaya preparation a day for 40 days experienced significant improvements in their symptoms, including constipation and bloating.

Even the inky-black seeds at the center of the fruit "get in on the act" of protecting the digestive system.  Although their bitter taste may take some getting used to, papaya seeds are fully edible and have possible protective effects against stomach ulcers.  To use them, simply strain and rinse off the gel-like residue with cold water, then crush or grind to add to recipes.

Slow the development of Alzheimer's disease

Powerful antioxidants in papaya, such as carotenoids and lycopene, help to neutralize the harmful free radicals that contribute to neurodegenerative diseases.  In one study, a powdered papaya extract helped to counteract oxidative stress in people with Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing its progression.  In fact, participants experienced an impressive 40 percent drop in specific biomarkers that indicate oxidative damage to cell DNA.

Lutein has also been shown to help alleviate cognitive impairment.  In one scientific review, the authors noted that lutein sharpened cognitive function in older women by improving verbal fluency, memory, and learning.

Enjoy the best in "plant-based nutrition"

Sweet, satisfying but naturally low in calories (a whole medium papaya yields only a modest 150), papaya is an unbeatable nutritional bargain.  With 2 grams of plant-based protein and 3 grams of soluble and insoluble fiber, the same papaya also provides over double the recommended daily intake of antioxidant vitamin C, which boosts the immune system and helps to produce the collagen essential for flexible arteries.

Other valuable papaya nutrients include vitamin A - necessary for the health and maintenance of skin, hair, and eyes - and folate, which has been shown to prevent strokes.  The essential minerals magnesium - which helps maintain a stable heartbeat - and potassium, which lowers blood pressure, are also present in papaya.

Papayas blend effortlessly into recipes

Combine papaya with pineapple, coconut, watermelon, and mangoes for a refreshing tropical salad bowl, or blend it with Greek yogurt and pineapple juice into a wholesome smoothie.  You can also create an addictive salsa by mixing papaya with mango, jalapeno peppers, red bell peppers, chipotle peppers, lime juice, and cilantro.  Papaya can also be used in marinades for fish, chicken, and beef recipes or wrapped in slices of prosciutto or cheese for a savory, energizing snack.  To enjoy a ripe papaya, simply scoop out the seeds and spoon it out as you would a cantaloupe or watermelon.

It's best to wait until papayas are fully ripe before using them.  Not only is the ripe flesh much higher in nutrients and flavor than that of unripe papayas, but it also contains smaller amounts of latex, to which some people are allergic.  (Of course, if you have a latex allergy, you should avoid papayas.)  Pregnant women should also avoid papayas due to the possibility of premature uterine contractions and early labor.

Papaya is a tempting but healthy tropical fruit with powerful health benefits.  In addition to the functions listed above, papaya promotes the health of the heart, immune system, and skin and may have antidiabetic and anticancer effects.  If you haven't sampled papaya yet, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Your body - and taste buds - will thank you!

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