Carotenoids are a family of compounds found in a wide array of fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants. Foods rich in carotenoids are generally known to have a distinctive bright-orange color, but leafy greens — such as spinach and kale — are good sources of some carotenoids, as well. Favorite carotenoid-rich foods during the fall months are pumpkins, persimmons, squash and yams.
Beta-carotene is unique among carotenoids because it can convert into vitamin A, which protects lung tissue, skin, the eyes and other body organs and functions. Vitamin A is found in animal food such as eggs and liver, however carotenoids are found predominantly in plants.
Lycopene, a better-known carotenoid found in tomatoes and watermelon, has been shown to enhance arterial flexibility, valuable protection against brittle arteries that go hand-in-hand with stroke and heart attack. Moreover, due to other mechanisms, including strong antioxidant activity, lycopene reduces cardiovascular and cancer risk.
Obese individuals and smokers are often deficient in antioxidant nutrients and various carotenoids, including zeaxanthin and lutein. Beyond reducing cardiovascular risk, lutein and zeaxanthin regulate immune function, protect the liver, reduce inflammation and serve critical roles in vision preservation and skin protection from the sun.
The concept of sun-protection — aka photoprotection — by dietary means is gaining momentum. Photoprotection is a unique role of carotenoids and other plant compounds. Research has confirmed the roles of lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene in protecting the eyes, but studies show that these compounds may also be some of the best "edible sunblock" of all. They are "applied" from within, by eating carotenoid-rich foods regularly.
Though dietary photoprotection should be a long-term endeavor, studies show that after about 10 weeks of increased intake, a decrease in the sensitivity toward ultraviolet-induced sunburn has been observed.
Ready to make some pumpkin pie?
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org