Fruits and vegetables should be a part of a healthy eating plan. We enjoy them for their wonderful flavors and bright colors. An eating pattern packed with plenty of fruits and vegetables includes two to three servings of fruits and three to five servings of vegetables each day.
Fruits and vegetables provide important nutrients, including antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta-carotene and lycopene. Antioxidants have disease-fighting properties and may also help keep the immune system healthy.
One antioxidant that has received attention in recent years is lycopene. Lycopene is a pigment that gives vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, red bell pepper, grapefruit and watermelon, their red color. Several studies suggest that consumption of foods rich in lycopene is associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer and decreased incidences of cardiovascular disease.
Lycopene is not produced in the body, so you can only obtain its benefits by eating foods rich in lycopene. Tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce, tomato juice, ketchup and pizza sauce, are the major sources of lycopene in the typical American diet. Fruits such as watermelon and pink grapefruit also provide lycopene but in smaller amounts.
Lycopene is better absorbed by the body when it is consumed in processed tomato products, rather than fresh tomatoes. Unlike other fruits and vegetables where nutritional content is diminished upon cooking, the processing of tomatoes increases the concentration of lycopene. Lycopene in tomato paste is two to four times more available than in fresh tomatoes. However, cooking fresh tomatoes with a little oil greatly increases lycopene absorption.
Some convenient ways to increase lycopene content in your diet are:
n For a quick and simple dinner choice, add a jar of tomato-based sauce to your favorite pasta and top with steamed vegetables or grated cheese.
n Enjoy tomato or vegetable juice as a refreshing and healthful snack.
n When choosing soups, think tomato.
n Watermelon makes a light, fat-free dessert.
n Wake up your tastebuds with fresh pink grapefruit along with your favorite breakfast.
Here are a few recipes which use tomatoes and will help increase lycopene intake in your diet.
with Chopped Tomatoes
1 teaspoon whipped light margarine
1 cup chopped onion
4 small zucchini, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
In a large nonstick skillet, melt margarine over medium heat; add onions and cook, stirring until softened. Add zucchini and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until zucchini is tender-crisp. Season to taste with pepper.
Nutritional info per 1-cup serving: 50 calories; 1g fat; 3g dietary fiber.
4 ripe tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
Slice tomatoes in half lengthwise. Prepare coals. Cover grill rack with foil. Place tomatoes on foil and sprinkle with oregano and lemon pepper. Grill tomatoes with cut side down over hot coals for about 4 to 5 minutes.
Nutritional info per tomato: 30 calories; 2g dietary fiber.
Lynn Patterson is a clinical dietitian at North Mississippi Medical Center.