I used to think supplementation was better for your health, especially when combined with a healthy diet. However, a trip to the camera store oddly set me on a path of discovery. It turns out that in some instances, food is better for your health—and that’s especially true when it comes to tomatoes and heart disease.
What’s Better: Nutrients Through Food Alone or Food Plus Supplementation?
You see, a while back, I needed a new battery for my digital camera.
What’s funny is everywhere I go, I seem to have an urge to talk about health and wellness. While purchasing the battery, I had started a conversation with the salesman about supplements. I had told him about the importance of natural supplements compared to synthetic supplementation. He responded swiftly and said, “I don’t take supplements. I get everything I need from my food.”
Now, I’m not sure what that man normally eats. After all, he could very well be consuming a diet primarily of whole foods. But even still, is he getting everything his body needs from foods alone? I’m not quite convinced. We eat whole foods for the natural nutrients they contain. However, what provides greater benefits for your health—the food or the nutrients extracted from your fresh produce?
Maybe the camera salesman was accidently right. Let me explain…
Tomatoes More Powerful Than Lycopene Supplements
Epidemiological research has taught us that lycopene extracted or isolated from tomatoes lowers cardiovascular disease risk. But, are lycopene supplements as effective or more effective than the lycopene you obtain from tomato consumption? That is exactly what researchers from the University of California at Davis and Harvard wanted to know.
The researchers reviewed cardiovascular disease studies on lycopene and tomatoes, and found that tomato-based foods provided greater cardiovascular health benefits than merely lycopene supplementation.
First, the effect of tomatoes and lycopene on oxidized LDL (low-density lipoprotein) was measured. The whole tomatoes provided moderate protection against oxidative stress over lycopene. The researchers also found three tomato studies and one lycopene study, which showed HDL (high-density lipoprotein) improvements. More research also supports tomato consumption as a viable oxidative damage reduction method in DNA, lipids, and proteins.
High blood pressure is a major contributor to heart disease. This was an area where lycopene had a slight advantage over the tomatoes. The researchers found that 15 mg of lycopene reduced stage 1 hypertension in three of five lycopene supplement studies. However, in three other studies, about one cup of raw tomatoes reduced blood pressure in type 2 diabetics. Hypertension is a risk factor associated with diabetes patients.
Tomatoes Aren’t Just Lycopene
But, the researchers aren’t convinced that lycopene supplements are more effective than whole tomatoes for hypertension. Why the skepticism? Well, tomatoes contain other supportive nutrients for heart health, including fiber, potassium, beta-carotene, folate, vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin B6. So, if lycopene supplements were to be combined with nutritional supplements for all of these other supportive nutrients, it’s possible the supplements could be more effective.
Should You Take Supplements?
There are several studies that link lycopene to other health benefits, including atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, skin health, male infertility, HPV (human papiloma virus) infection, cataracts, asthma, and a number of cancers like skin, colorectal, endometrial, pancreatic, ovarian, bladder, lung, breast, and prostate.
Overall, according to the research, eating tomato-based foods is considered the better approach for reducing your cardiovascular risk than lycopene. However, that doesn’t mean supplementation is unnecessary. In fact, supplements can be taken in conjunction with a healthy diet, which may include tomatoes.
A Couple Other Notes on Tomatoes for Better Heart Health
There are a couple negatives when it comes to those red and juicy nightshade vegetables. For one—I don’t eat tomatoes. When I do, gas and bloating often occur. They are a major food sensitivity for me, and also cause inflammation and pain for many other people. For those sensitive to tomatoes, supplementation may be the better approach to lowering your cardiovascular risk.
What tomatoes are best to eat? Tomatoes are considered a common genetically modified crop, and may also contain high pesticide content. It is definitely best to consume organic tomatoes or organic cherry tomatoes.
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Sources for Today’s Article:
Burton-Freeman, B.M. and Sesso, H.D., “Whole Food versus Supplement: Comparing the Clinical Evidence of Tomato Intake and Lycopene Supplementation on Cardiovascular Risk Factors,” Advances in Nutrition September 2014; 5: 457–485, doi: 10.3945/an.114.005231.
King, M., “Tomatoes Better Than A Pill For Heart Disease,” GreenMedInfo web site, December 31, 2014; http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/tomatoes-better-pill-heart-disease, last accessed March 17, 2015.
“Lycopene,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-554-lycopene.aspx?activeingredientid=554&activeingredientname=lycopene, last accessed March 17, 2015.