If you’ve ever bitten into a crunchy carrot or a juicy kiwi, you’ve tasted carotenoids, the antioxidant compounds that give many red, orange, yellow, and green foods their color.
These natural food pigments have long been known for their ability to keep inflammation at bay. Now new research shows that two carotenoids – lutein and zeaxanthin – may be particularly helpful in keeping women healthy later in life.
With benefits for eye and brain health, foods containing carotenoids could hold a delicious key to alleviating health concerns that plague women in their later years.
Here’s a look at why these colorful nutrients could be helping women live better, longer, and how to include more of them in your daily diet.
For the review published in the magazine in June Nutritional Neurosciencethe researchers attempted to address the so-called “mortality-morbidity paradox,” which highlights the fact that women, although they tend to live longer than men, typically suffer from more health problems.
Two University of Georgia researchers—Billy R. Hammond, PhD, professor in the University’s Behavioral and Brain Sciences program; and Lisa Renzi-Hammond, PhD, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Gerontology — investigated whether dietary factors might help improve age-related conditions in women.
Although antioxidants benefit almost everyone, carotenoids may hold a special place in a woman’s diet. Higher levels of carotenoids in the blood have previously been linked to a reduced risk of female health problems such as breast and ovarian cancer, age-related muscle wasting, inflammatory bowel disease, skin wrinkles and multiple sclerosis.
However, this study specifically focused on how two carotenoids — lutein and zeaxanthin, or L and Z for short — impact two other issues that disproportionately affect women later in life: visual and neurodegenerative issues.
Because these conditions can be caused by oxidative and inflammatory stress, the researchers suggested that L and Z might help women reduce their risks — especially since antioxidants are known for their ability to “cleanse” cells of harmful free radicals or chemicals “, which have the potential to damage cells.
The review concluded that lutein and zeaxanthin directly improved function and prevented degeneration of both the eyes and brain. Vision problems like cataracts and macular degeneration, and neurological issues like dementia could all be slowed down with a diet high in L and Z. These improvements could lead to a better quality of life in older women.
And surprisingly, these carotenoids don’t just help the eyes and brain function better — they’re actually essential parts of the organs themselves. “The paradox is that dietary components like carotenoids don’t just reduce disease risk,” Hammond said Health; “They make up the actual building blocks of the brain itself.”
It’s certainly not harmful for all people to add more color to their plate, but you may be wondering why women tend to benefit from more carotenoids compared to men.
“There are a couple of reasons,” Hammond said. “The first is simply that women are at higher risk for the kinds of degenerative diseases, like macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease, that carotenoids seem to be good at preventing.”
Hammond also theorizes that women’s bodies may use these antioxidant compounds differently than men’s because of their reproductive biology, size, and body fat distribution. (It’s worth noting that the study only focused on the women who were assigned at birth. “Some health effects are directly related to biological sex,” Hammond explained.)
Another possibility could be that certain elements of women’s lifestyle create a need for more carotenoids. “There isn’t much data yet on the role of gender identity as a risk factor for degenerative diseases,” Hammond said. “But we do know that lifestyle plays a dominant role and that gender identity influences health behaviors.” Future research may shed more light on what everyday factors could be modified to reduce the incidence of age-related health problems in women.
One thing is for sure though – when it comes to carotenoid consumption, don’t start too early. “The most common problems women face later in life are of a degenerative nature. Therefore, they reflect lifelong behavior. The sooner you start, the better,” Hammond said.
Adding more carotenoids to your diet — especially lutein and zeaxanthin — doesn’t have to be complicated.
“Sources of carotenoids, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin, include kale, parsley, spinach, broccoli and peas,” said nutritionist Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, LD Health. “Kale is one of the best sources of lutein at 48–115 micrograms per gram.” For an antioxidant pop, try tossing some leafy greens into a smoothie or steaming broccoli as a side for dinner.
Meanwhile, veggies aren’t the only lutein and zeaxanthin superstars. Orange juice, honeydew melon, kiwis, peppers, squash, egg yolks, and grapes all contain significant amounts. (You might notice a pattern — foods high in these antioxidants tend to be colored with light or warm hues.)
In addition to improving eye and brain health, lutein and zeaxanthin may provide other benefits as well. “Recent research has shown that they can prevent UV damage on the skin,” says Brooking. “And animal studies show that lutein and zeaxanthin can protect your skin cells from premature aging and UVB-induced tumors.”
As for how much L and Z to aim for each day, Brooking says there is currently no recommended daily allowance. “The amount of lutein and zeaxanthin your body needs can depend on the amount of stress it can endure. For example, smokers may need more lutein and zeaxanthin.”
However, research from a large cohort known as the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 found that 10 milligrams of lutein and 2 milligrams of zeaxanthin significantly reduced the progression of age-related macular degeneration.
If you feel your diet isn’t providing the levels of lutein and zeaxanthin you want, supplements are another option. “While it’s ideal to get nutrients through diet, many Americans don’t eat foods rich in carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. In such cases, dietary supplements can be helpful,” says Brooking.
Although research will take many years to unravel the morbidity-mortality paradox in women’s health, a solution may lie at the bottom of your salad bowl or the end of your smoothie straw.
For anti-inflammatory benefits, older women can’t go wrong increasing their intake of carotenoid-rich foods. “For the majority of people, old age is a time when they can really thrive — if they make the right choices,” says Hammond. “Part of that is knowing (and believing) what the right choices really are.”