We all love to hear that eating more of our favorite foods will help us reduce our risk of cancer or other health problems, but how sound are these recommendations? Lycopene, a carotenoid most commonly found in tomatoes, has been linked to protective health effects for cancers, stroke and osteoporosis. Understanding the current research will give healthcare providers a better idea of whether to recommend an increase in lycopene for your patients.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Lycopene
According to a study in Neurology, lycopene has often been discussed in men's health as a way to ward off prostate cancer; research has shown it may help prevent stroke in men. Less research has been conducted on how it might affect women; however, the early results are promising for bone health and cancer prevention. Harvard Health reports that the benefits of lycopene could come from the fact that it is an antioxidant that eliminates free radicals, which can cause damage to DNA that potentially leads to cancer. A review in the Journal of Cancer Prevention suggests that lycopene has strong anti-cancer properties, reducing the spread of breast, prostate, colorectal, lung and endometrial cancers.
Can pizza really reduce the risk of cancer? Maybe. The Negri Institute for Pharmaceutical Research in Milan found that people who ate pizza at least once a week had a lower risk of esophageal, colon and mouth cancers. The researchers thought the benefit may come from the tomato sauce. However, it's important to keep in mind that Italian pizza eaten by people who generally follow a Mediterranean diet is different from the pizza eaten in the U.S. by people who typically have a Western diet.
Lycopene doesn't just protect against cancer; it also appears to maintain bone density, too. The Natural Health Research Institute cites multiple studies showing that 10 or 12 milligrams of lycopene a day helped preserve bone health.
Should You Recommend Lycopene for Patients?
The results are still limited, but it seems lycopene offers numerous benefits to women's health with no downside. The evidence on the benefits of lycopene may not be strong enough to justify recommending a supplement, and most women likely don't need one. The body absorbs lycopene better when it's eaten with fatty foods, which may be why pizza had a protective effect. Your patients, though, are probably better off opting for healthy fats. Because of this, healthcare providers should recommend combining a healthy fat with a lycopene-rich food:
- Marinara sauce on whole-wheat spaghetti with grated Parmesan cheese.
- Watermelon slices with a handful of nuts.
- Tomato slices alone or in a salad drizzled with olive oil and spices.
- One pink or red grapefruit with an egg.
- Salsa with chips and avocado.
Just a couple small additions of lycopene-rich foods — if someone doesn't already eat a lot of them — can be enough to reap the protective benefits of lycopene. While the occasional pizza may not be too harmful, regularly eating foods high in calories and saturated fat can ultimately have detrimental effects on your patients' health. Talk to patients about what they may gain from adding in a couple foods while giving them simple suggestions on how to combine them with a healthy fat.