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4 surprising reasons to include tomatoes in your diet

4 surprising reasons to include tomatoes in your diet

Eating a ripe, ruby-red tomato is one of the reliable joys of summertime.  But these juicy delicacies do more than thrill your taste buds.  Hidden within the skin and pulp of a tomato are powerful antioxidants and nutrients that can help discourage chronic disease and obesity.

Somewhat confusingly, tomatoes are botanically classified as a fruit - but are considered a vegetable when it comes to culinary use.  No matter how you categorize them, tomatoes - scientifically known as Solanum lycopersicum - are a savory, satisfying food that confers serious health benefits.  Let’s look at some of the compelling reasons for adding tomatoes to your healthy diet.

Antioxidant-rich tomatoes may help fight cancer

The key to many of tomato’s health benefits is its content of lycopene, the plant pigment responsible for a ripe tomato’s brilliant red color.  Lycopene is among the most potent antioxidants on the planet.  In fact, scientists say it is second only to astaxanthin in its ability to scavenge disease-causing free radicals. 

Studies have linked tomato consumption with lower incidence of prostate, stomach, breast and lung cancers.  And, in a 2020 review published in Antioxidants, researchers reported that lycopene inhibited the growth of cancer cells, decreased their ability to spread, and caused apoptosis - or pre-programmed cell death - in human colorectal and liver cancer cells.

Tomatoes also contain beta-carotene, which is responsible for reddish, orange and yellow hues in fruits and vegetables.  Studies have linked a diet high in beta-carotene with reduced risk of cancer.  Finally, tomato skins contain yet another antioxidant known as naringenin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects to help combat the inflammation that triggers cancer. 

Tomatoes help protect against heart attacks and strokes

Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of mortality for adults, both worldwide and in the United States.  With strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, lycopene in tomatoes can strike a blow at the oxidative stress and inflammation that lies at the root of this killer disease.

Encouragingly, a study published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine revealed tomato consumption improved the health of all-important arterial linings and reduced the “stickiness” of blood platelets, making blood less likely to form into life-threatening clots.  An accumulating body of scientific evidence supports lycopene’s ability to lower LDL cholesterol as well.

Tomatoes contain healthy levels of potassium and magnesium, which can help lower elevated blood pressure - a risk factor for heart disease and strokes.  In addition, chlorogenic acid in tomatoes is also believed to lower elevated blood pressure. 

Tomatoes help protect the skin

It turns out that eating tomatoes can benefit the skin by helping to protect against harmful ultraviolet rays.  In one surprising study, participants who consumed 16 grams of lycopene-rich tomato products daily for 10 weeks experienced 40 percent fewer sunburns.

Of course, tomatoes don’t replace the need for effective sun protection (you can’t gobble tomatoes and then frolic under a blazing summer sun with impunity) but any protection from skin-burning ultraviolet rays is clearly beneficial.

Tomatoes are also a good source of vitamin C, with a small tomato providing almost a quarter of the recommended daily intake for adults.  Vitamin C is necessary for the production of collagen, one of the primary “building blocks” for skin.  And, the high water content in tomatoes can promote proper skin hydration.

Support healthy weight with tomatoes

A small tomato weighs in at a negligible 18 calories - yet contains over a gram of dietary fiber, which can create a feeling of fullness and reduce hunger pangs.

But that’s not the only good news.  Research suggests that tomatoes - and their cargo of beneficial lycopene - may promote weight loss.  In a study published in Nutrients, female volunteers consumed 280 mg of tomato juice, containing 32.5 mg of lycopene, a day for two months.  The participants experienced significant reductions in body weight, body fat and waist circumference - along with lower cholesterol and reduced markers of inflammation.

For maximum benefit, look for organic, locally grown tomatoes

When it comes to finding ways to enjoy tomatoes, it’s hard to go wrong.  You can partner them with mozzarella cheese and basil for a refreshing Caprese salad, feature them in a refreshing gazpacho, layer them into sandwiches or wraps, or simmer them into homemade pasta sauce.  Or just enjoy a ripe tomato out of hand as a snack, with a dash of lemon juice and pepper.

For maximum benefit, use tomatoes unpeeled (much of the lycopene and naringenin is in the skin).  And remember - the redder the tomato, the higher the lycopene content.

Whenever possible, opt for ripe, organic, locally grown tomatoes.  Commercial growers harvest and transport tomatoes while green and unripe, then try to “make up the difference” by spraying them with artificial ethylene gas to hasten the ripening process.  Don’t fall for this cheap trick!

Incidentally, consuming lycopene along with fat can increase lycopene absorption by fourfold.  That’s why the combination of tomatoes and avocados - which are high in healthy monosaturated fats - is so highly praised by nutritionists. 

Whether you prefer dainty cherry tomatoes or large, hearty Beefsteaks - and, whether you say “tomay-to” or “tomah-to” - you can be sure you’re enjoying one of summer’s healthiest indulgences. 

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