Eating plenty of tomatoes could put you on the path to a healthy brain in your old age, according to a research project called “The Nun Study.” The research, directed by David Snowdon, M.D, studied aging nuns, ranging in age from 75 to over 100 years old. A portion of the study looked at antioxidants found in everyday foods to determine what effect they may have on brain health in old age.
Surprisingly, only one antioxidant had a strong link to a healthy brain. It’s lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes that is best absorbed when eaten with dietary fat, such as that found in olive oil. Think tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce. Unlike other vitamins, which can be destroyed or damaged by cooking, lycopene is more readily available from cooked tomatoes than fresh tomatoes.
Six years after the study started, 70 percent of the elderly nuns with high levels of lycopene were still alive, compared to only 13 percent of those with low lycopene levels. Those numbers alone should be enough motivation to pop open a can of tomato sauce right now!
Because the only way lycopene gets into the blood is by eating tomatoes, a tomato-rich diet could give us greater mental acuity in our old age, as well as the potential to live longer and healthier.
Dr. Snowdon believes the antioxidant power of lycopene in tomatoes neutralizes free radicals in our bodies to help prevent the age-related deterioration from free radical damage. That includes cognitive function, so lycopene can help our brains function better as we age.
Although lycopene is available in supplemental form, the best way to get more in your diet is to use lots of tomato paste, tomato sauce and spaghetti sauce (My favorite is any Newman’s Own™ pasta sauce). One study found that eating tomato sauce daily reduced free radical damage to cell DNA by a third. Several studies have also shown that lycopene can protect against cancer.
Lycopene can be found in tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava. Because cooking concentrates the tomatoes, the highest amounts of lycopene can be found in tomato paste and sauces. Here are the lycopene levels for one ounce of each source:
- Tomato paste – 16 mg.
- Tomato sauce – 5 mg.
- Spaghetti sauce – 5 mg.
- Canned tomatoes – 3 mg.
- Tomato soup – 3 mg.
- Vegetable juice – 3 mg.
- Fresh tomatoes – under 1 mg.
Dr. Snowdon wrote a remarkable book about his years working with the nuns. It’s called Aging With Grace – What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Longer, Healthier and More Meaningful Lives. It’s a human-centered and affectionate story that will move you as well as educate you. You can find the book at Amazon.com, other online retailers or your local book store.
If you found this article useful, you’ll enjoy my new book, Keys to Alzheimer’s Prevention, which explains a simple and easy-to-follow plan to prevent memory loss and Alzheimer’s.