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Carotenes have a powerful, positive effect on heart health

In a major breakthrough in nutrition and health research, a team of scientists from IDIBAPS and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has discovered that higher levels of carotenes in the blood can be linked with a reduced degree of atherosclerosis in the arteries, and consequently, a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases. The study brings a new perspective to our understanding of the vital role that diet plays in cardiovascular health.

Atherosclerosis is a common yet dangerous condition, characterized by the accumulation of LDL cholesterol, often referred to as “bad cholesterol,” on the interior walls of the blood vessels. Over time, this cholesterol builds up to form atherosclerotic plaques, which can lead to a constriction of the blood vessel’s internal diameter, effectively impeding blood circulation. 

In the worst-case scenario, these plaques can rupture, causing clots that block blood flow, leading to critical health events such as heart attacks or ischaemic strokes. Such events occur when the obstruction prevents blood from reaching the heart or brain.

The role of carotenes 

Within this complex interplay of health factors, carotenes – bioactive compounds present in a range of fruits and vegetables – have emerged as a potential solution. Carotenes are most commonly found in yellow, orange and green fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, mangoes, apricots and pumpkins. 

Previous research has suggested that carotenes are capable of checking atherosclerosis. “However, the studies carried out to date have not been conclusive and it even appears that, when administered as a supplement, they have a prejudicial effect,” explained Gemma Chiva Blanch, who led the study. 

How the research was conducted 

The groundbreaking research, which is now published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, was focused on a sample of 200 participants between the ages of 50 and 70. These volunteers were recruited by the IDIBAPS Primary healthcare transversal research group, led by Antoni Sisó Almirall. 

The experts meticulously examined two parameters among the participants: the concentration of carotenes in the blood and the presence of atherosclerotic plaques in the carotid artery. This was achieved using ultrasound imaging.

Remarkable results

The results were quite revealing. “The study concludes that the greater the concentration of carotenes in the blood, the lesser the atherosclerotic burden, particularly in women,” said Chiva Blanch. “So, we can confirm that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and thus in carotenes lowers the risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases.”

This study is likely to have a profound impact on the way we understand the relationship between diet and cardiovascular health, potentially prompting a shift towards a more carotene-rich diet for better heart health. However, more research is needed to better understand how these bioactive compounds can be most effectively utilized, especially given the inconclusiveness of prior studies using carotene supplements.

More about carotenes 

Carotenes are a type of pigment found in many fruits and vegetables, lending them their vibrant colors. They are part of a larger class of phytochemicals known as carotenoids, which also include compounds such as lycopene and zeaxanthin. Carotenes are a powerful antioxidant, and they play several important roles in human health.

There are different types of carotenes, but the two most common ones are alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Both types can be converted by the body into vitamin A, a nutrient that is essential for eye health, skin health, and immune function. The process of conversion happens in the liver, where enzymes cleave the carotene molecules into retinol, the active form of vitamin A.

The best dietary sources of carotenes are bright orange, red, yellow, and green fruits and vegetables. Some examples include carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, spinach, kale, tomatoes, mangoes, and apricots. The exact amount of carotenes in these foods can vary depending on factors like ripeness, growing conditions, and how the food is cooked.

Although carotenes are beneficial for health, they need to be consumed as part of a balanced diet. The body is not able to make carotenes, so they need to be obtained from dietary sources. However, consuming too much carotene from supplements can be harmful and has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer in some studies. Finally, since carotenes are fat-soluble, they are best absorbed when consumed with a source of fat.


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