8 Potential Health Benefits of Tomatoes
Jun 07, 2023
With all the ways tomatoes promote good health, protect your skin, and ward off chronic diseases, you may want to add more than just an occasional slice on a burger or sandwich.
You might want to trade your apple a day for another juicy red bite: a tomato. Research has found that the versatile fruit — yes, it's a fruit, and technically a berry — boasts bountiful health benefits. One medium-size raw tomato packs more than one gram of fiber into just 22 calories, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with potassium, vitamin A, and the antioxidant lycopene. Tomatoes also have the distinction of being the fruit with the highest water content, according to UCLA Health, which notes that at 94 percent, they are even more hydrating than watermelon.
Tomatoes can be readily found fresh, canned, or in products such as paste or sauce, which makes them easy to incorporate into weekly menus and accessible for most budgets. Tomato paste actually has more concentrated nutrients than raw or canned, says Jennifer Christman, RDN, the director of clinical nutrition at Optavia, but cooking fresh ones down into, say, a pasta sauce, can provide a similar bang by stewing out the water content, past research shows. “If you do choose processed tomato products, look for ones without added sugar, salt, and oil when possible,” Christman recommends.
Here are eight more reasons to add more tomatoes to your diet.
Tomatoes are abundant in the carotenoid lycopene, a fat-soluble pigment that gives red fruits their color, according to MedlinePlus. Lycopene has been found to shield against oxidative stress, including ultraviolet (UV) damage from the sun. In essence, if you eat enough of the fruit, some past research shows it could act as an internal sunscreen by preventing sunburn, and, potentially, skin cancer. That said, research is still ongoing, and a bowl of pico de gallo shouldn’t replace regular liberal sunscreen application.
The lycopene in tomatoes (most abundantly present in their skin, Christman says) may protect against more than just skin cancers. People who consume the most tomatoes tend to have lower rates of breast, prostate, and lung cancer, research has found, possibly because the lycopene in the tomatoes inhibits cancer cell growth and modulates immune function.
“Lycopene, along with other antioxidants in tomatoes, works synergistically to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals,” Christman says. Free radicals are compounds that have been associated with disease and aging, so in this way, tomatoes may play a crucial role in disease prevention.
In concentrated tomato products like tomato paste, the lycopene content may be higher ounce for ounce, says Christman, but that doesn’t mean you should stay away from the fresh fruit, because lycopene is “still abundant” in that, too.
One more caveat: The key to maximizing lycopene’s protective benefits is to eat tomatoes along with healthy fats, as carotenoids require fat to be properly absorbed by the body, research published in the March 2021 Antioxidants found. “Try tomatoes with avocados or olive oil, for example, in a salsa or salad, to reap the full benefit,” Christman says.
Along with lycopene, tomatoes contain the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been found to aid in the preservation of eye health and prevention of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. The vitamin A found in tomatoes is another key nutrient for eye health, and may also reduce the risk of macular degeneration, as well as help prevent night blindness, according to Michigan State University Extension.
Tomatoes are around 94 percent water, which makes them ultra-hydrating, says Rachel Jones, RDN, the vice president and chief nutrition officer at GNC. They also contain potassium (292 milligrams [mg] per one medium tomato), an electrolyte that supports proper hydration by helping maintain intracellular fluid volume, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
One cup of chopped tomatoes provides about 27 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin C, according to USDA data, an antioxidant that supports immune function and collagen production, reduces inflammation, and helps protect against disease-causing free radical damage and aging, per the NIH.
“Vitamin C also enhances iron absorption,” Christman says, “so by pairing tomatoes with iron-rich lean proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, skinless chicken, and turkey and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds, you’ll optimize the nutrients you are getting.”
A diet rich in tomatoes may help diversify the gut microbiome, which can maintain balanced digestion and an optimized immune system, according to a review published in Biology (Basel) in February 2022. Although research in this area is still in the early stages, experiments with mice found that dietary supplementation with tomato powder significantly increased the diversity and richness of the rodents’ gut microbiota, and reduced inflammatory response, which indicates that tomatoes show potential for treating inflammatory bowel disease. A healthy, diverse microbiome has been linked to a number of health benefits, including improved immunity and the prevention of diseases like cancer and inflammatory liver disease by mediating the buildup of harmful bacteria.
High consumption of tomatoes was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death from coronary heart disease, according to research published in Frontiers in Nutrition in March 2022. One potential reason: The antioxidants and other nutrients in tomatoes — specifically lycopene — have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, according to one past meta-analysis. Tomato sauce enriched with olive oil was found to lower cholesterol and biomarkers of inflammation in one past study.
With only around 20 calories in a medium-size fruit, fresh tomatoes are a low-calorie food, and their fiber and high water content may help you feel full longer and maintain a healthy weight, Jones says. Canned tomatoes have similar properties, provided they have been processed without added sugar and sodium (check the nutrition facts label to be sure).
One small past study found that supplementing with tomato juice significantly reduced body weight, but additional research is needed to support those results. Regardless, incorporating tomatoes into your diet can be part of a balanced diet, says Christman, who recommends the general rule of filling half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables or fruits like tomatoes.
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