Many of my patients tell me that in an effort to eat a healthier diet they’ve given up their favorite Italian foods like pizza, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana and spaghetti marinara. Imagine their delight when I tell them that they don’t have to give up these foods to be healthier. In fact, these very foods may help protect them against heart disease and several forms of cancer! Sound unbelievable? Well, it’s not. Let me tell you about a secret powerhouse ingredient found in many Italian dishes that is loaded with health benefits. I’ll even share one of my favorite recipes that’s sure to be a hit with you too!
Lycopene: The Amazing Antioxidant
The amazing, natural ingredient that many Italian dishes contain is lycopene – a strong antioxidant in the carotenoid (vitamin A derived) family of phytochemicals contained in tomatoes. When you heat tomatoes, as in the making of sauce that goes on pizza, spaghetti or lasagna, and many other tomato-based Italian recipes, you release one of nature’s best disease-fighters.
Antioxidants, as I’ve explained in other newsletters, are phytochemicals that help fight disease by getting rid of the waste produce of cell metabolism, before they can damage cell structure. Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, selenium, resveratrol and lycopene are some of the best antioxidants available to neutralize free radicals. Lycopene helps protect plants against damage from light by scavenging free radicals much the same way it does in humans.
Researchers have known about the incredible health benefits of lycopene for the last decade. A study out of Harvard University done in the mid-1990’s showed that 50,000 men eating 10 or more servings of tomato-based foods a week had a 34% or more reduction in the risk of prostate cancer. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that 15 mg of lycopene per day may slow the progression of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a condition in men in which the prostate gland enlarges and presses against the urethra causing frequent urination.
In another study, men who had the highest concentration of lycopene in their body fat were only 50% as likely to have a heart attack as men with lower levels of body fat concentrated lycopene. Coronary artery disease occurs when plaques build in the arteries and produce ongoing arterial damaging inflammation. Dietary intake of carotenoids like lycopene can interrupt and halt inflammation by preventing the oxidation of LDL, low-density lipoproteins, that constitute the majority of arterial plagues.
A 1989 study published in Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics found that lycopene bypassed Vitamin E and beta-carotene in their ability to scavenge free radicals. The Mayo Clinic has also cited lycopene as being helpful in preventing other disease like macular degeneration, a deteriorative condition of the eyes, as well as cellular damage from smoking and environmental pollution, and may help decrease exercise-induced asthma attacks.
How Can You Get Enough Lycopene?
Lycopene is found in red-yellow fruits and vegetables such as pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, apricots with the highest amount found in tomatoes. For breakfast, try broiling ½ a red or pink grapefruit with cinnamon on top as heat releases the lycopene. Snack on a few papaya slices or apricots throughout the day or for lunch to increase your lycopene intake.
By far, though, the richest food source of lycopene is tomatoes and foods that contain cooked tomatoes, like the many Italian foods noted above. Of course, I don’t advocate eating 10 servings of pizza or spaghetti or lasagna a week to reap the benefits of lycopene, as most of these foods are also high in refined carbohydrates and fat. However, these foods can be prepared in a healthier way that reduces theirglycemic load and uses good fats like olive oil.
Lycopene can also be taken in supplement form, 10-15 mg a day, but check with your doctor, or a pharmacist, if you are also taking prescription medications as lycopene may enhance their effects. In addition, like Vitamin A, and other carotenoid family vitamins, lycopene stores in fat tissues and a little goes a long way. If you’re getting too much lycopene, your skin will take on an orangey-cast that will disappear when you stop taking it.
Now for the fun part! Here’s one of my favorite lycopene-rich recipes that can be made quickly in your microwave, or regular oven, using a few simple ingredients; a healthy low carb/low sugar, high antioxidant personal size pizza that really tastes great. Here’s how:
1. Mix the tomato sauce, olive oil, oregano and garlic powder together in a bowl and pour onto the Flatout bread and spread evenly.
2. Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese over the sauce.
3. Add chopped additional toppings.
4. Microwave for 40-60 seconds on HIGH or heat in oven until cheese melts at 400 degrees, about 5-10 minutes. Voila! You have a healthy lycopene, Omega-3 fat rich, low carb, and high protein pizza.
Lycopene is an incredible antioxidant that nature has given us. By adding some lycopene rich fruits and vegetables to your diet each day and eating a few servings of cooked tomato recipes, you can help ward off diseases like cancer and heart disease, and still enjoy your favorite foods.