“What’s for dinner?”
You sigh, open the kitchen cupboard, survey your options, and grab the package of pasta and jar of tomato sauce with a shrug. If you’re lucky, you've got some ground turkey to toss into the saucepan. “This will have to do tonight,” you say, with the tiniest twinge of defeat over what might not feel like a gourmet meal.
But there’s good news: Numerous studies show people who make tomatoes, especially in cooked form, a regular part of their diet, may have a lower risk of certain types of cancers. So that spaghetti sauce can actually be a key ingredient in protecting your family’s health.
For roughly the last three decades, scientists have studied the benefits of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that can protect against cell damage. Tomatoes have received particular attention because they have the highest naturally occurring levels of lycopene. Researchers have tried to understand how consuming a lycopene-rich diet may lower your risk of getting cancer – or whether there truly is a connection at all. While the final verdict may still be out, here’s what we know:
Observational studies in several countries have shown a correlation between high levels of lycopene in the blood and a lower risk of certain types of cancer, including lung, stomach, breast, skin, and especially prostate cancer. Further research shows lycopene levels in the blood are higher after people ate cooked tomatoes versus after they ate raw tomatoes or drank tomato juice. This suggests lycopene from cooked tomatoes may be more readily absorbed by the body. In addition, other research suggests pairing lycopene-rich foods with a small amount of oil or fat (lasagna anyone?) may increase the amount of lycopene the body absorbs.
At this point, you’re probably thinking every night should be Italian night, especially for the important men in your life. The statistics for prostate cancer are pretty alarming. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be roughly 233,000 new diagnoses of prostate cancer in 2014 – just in the U.S. And about 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. As a result, prostate cancer prevention has driven much of the research on tomatoes and their cancer-fighting effects. But scientists haven’t found a silver bullet just yet.
The American Cancer Association reported on a study that showed men who have already been diagnosed with prostate cancer don’t see any measurable reversal with a lycopene-rich diet. And though some observational studies seem to draw a connection between eating cooked tomatoes and cancer prevention, a 2004 analysis of several observational studies found the effects were weak. Silver lining? Another study suggests that perhaps it’s the tomato’s unique combination of vitamins, minerals and lycopene that makes it a cancer-fighting champion – rather than just the lycopene itself. As a side note, lycopene comes in supplement form, but the studies on that are inconclusive as too.
Despite this conflicting research, most experts agree eating a balanced diet with plenty of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer, even if it can’t cure it.
The American Cancer Society recommends the following daily guidelines:
o Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables
o Choose whole grains over processed and refined grains
o Limit processed meats and red meat
o Fit in some type of physical activity to get your heart rate up
o Limit alcohol consumption
So the next time you’re at a loss for what to whip up for dinner, don’t fret about “boring” spaghetti. As long as that sauce isn't heavily processed, you’re actually serving up a healthy option for the ones you love.