Well, not only the carrot. The sweet potato, too, and also the squash, greens (collard, turnip, and mustard), apples, green beans, cantaloupe, broccoli, and tomatoes, a colorful list you can etch into your brain and learn more about by clicking here.
Carotenoids are a group of antioxidants synthesized by plants, and they circulate through your body after you’ve eaten the fruits and veggies containing them. You’ve likely heard of alpha and beta carotene, lycopene, and lutein. You might not know zeaxanthin, astaxanthin, and the mysterious sounding beta-cryptoxanthin.
Any competent nutritionist will be happy to bend your ear on how oxidative damage to DNA plays an important role in why we age and get chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer, and how as a result we die younger than we’d hoped. She’ll tell you that antioxidants, especially by means of healthful eating and judicious use of nutritional supplements, can play a starring role in disease prevention.
And then, as she offers to share her carrots (nutritionists are all svelte carrot-munchers), she’ll snow you with the data of an extremely important study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that, other than swearing off drunk driving, eating your vegetables is the single greatest protection against premature death.
In this government-funded study, epidemiologists followed 15,318 adults over age 20, tracking chronic disease and death against blood levels of the most potent carotenoid, alpha carotene. They began the study in 1988 and collected data on this huge group through 2006.
With all the data finally analyzed, the results were clear: higher blood levels of alpha carotene matched lower levels of death from all causes–heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory illness. Conversely, lower alpha carotene levels meant significantly higher death rates.
Conclusion? Alpha carotene protects you from premature death. Further debate unnecessary.
However, lest you think you can get off the hook by grabbing a bottle of supplements to make up for years of vegetable-phobic dietary indiscretions, let’s review a few facts. Once upon a time beta carotene supplements were all the rage as life-extending antioxidants…until studies showed they didn’t really do much of anything. It turned out that taking pure beta carotene blocked your body’s ability to absorb the better carotenes.
Using mixed carotene supplements is certainly a wiser choice, but I recommend these only if you’ve accumulated years of veggie avoidance that places your carotene levels in the pathetic zone. If you take the carotene pledge and “find vegetables” the way some people find Jesus, you won’t need a carotene supplement. There are many cookbooks out there to help. Here’s one to consider. Getting a sharp knife and cutting up raw veggies every day might be the easiest plan of all.
If you habitually go brain-dead in the produce section of your grocery, your shopping cart overfilled with Pringles, Twinkies, and Diet Coke (eek!), you can offset some of this benign self-neglect with Integrative Therapeutics Pure Harvest Greens, a concentrated blend that provides about five servings of veggies per scoop. Better yet, schedule a visit with our nutritionist Marla Feingold, a former professional chef who loves nothing better than helping people learn how to prepare good food, including all-important vegetables.
Having your doctor measure the level of carotene in your blood can produce feelings of either regret or reassurance. WholeHealth Chicago patients, generally a healthy bunch with enviable levels, can have theirs checked to experience the dual joys of self-righteousness and a forecast of longevity. The printed result is suitable for framing and more reliable than a palm-reader fingering your life-line. If you’re on the threshold of a committed relationship, you can staple your results to your negative HIV test.
Speaking of tests, spring is a good time to check your vitamin D levels, especially after this dark, dark winter. Like low carotene, low levels of D are linked to cancer and heart disease risk.
But if you’re practicing safe sex, eating your fruits and veggies, and taking a vitamin D supplement, you needn’t have any of these tests (they aren’t inexpensive). With a healthy carotene intake, your main life challenge might be accumulating enough retirement money to last your extra-extra-long life.
David Edelberg, MD