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Healing Kitchen

Not For Your Eyes Only
Lutein is part of the family of compounds known as carotenoids, and is found in foods that are bright yellow, orange, and green. While one of the primary benefits associated with lutein--and zeaxanthin, lutein's less-studied companion carotenoid--is its role in preventing eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, preliminary research is revealing that lutein may also impart other health benefits as well.

Lutein and Cancer Prevention
Recently published results from a study, "Carotenoids and Cancer" (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), show an inverse relationship between lutein intake and colon cancer for both men and women. The study recruited 1,993 colon cancer patients (between ages 30-79) who were compared with 2,410 people who did not have cancer. Food intake was analyzed for both groups and, based upon comparisons of the two groups, those who had the highest intake of lutein-rich foods had a 17% lower risk of colon cancer than those who consumed the least amount of lutein-rich foods. The greatest inverse association was reflected in participants in whom colon cancer was diagnosed before the age of 67. The authors of the study found no correlation between colon cancer risk and other dietary factors, including dietary carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lycopene).

The study also found that a high intake of foods containing lutein was not protective against colon cancer in participants who had a family history of the disease, suggesting that genetic factors may prevail over the beneficial effects of lutein. While the chemoprotective mechanisms attributed to lutein are currently unknown, researchers speculate that biological activities may work at the membrane level by hindering tumor growth. For those who do not have a family history of colon cancer, and who start consuming foods high in lutein at an early age, consumption of lutein-rich foods may help to prevent the development of the disease process.

Currently, lutein and zeaxanthin are being investigated for their role in preventing skin cancer as well as cervical and breast cancer.

Lutein and Heart Disease
Researchers are just beginning to investigate lutein's role in reducing risk of coronary heart disease through its ability to reduce free radical oxidation. Free radical oxidation, or oxidative stress, is implicated in the formation of atherosclerotic lesions.

Lutein and Eye Health Lutein serves as internal sunglasses by reducing sunlight-induced oxidation in the eyes. Lutein (and its companion carotenoid, zeaxanthin), is concentrated within the macular region of the retina and preserves eye health by filtering out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the elderly, results from long-term deterioration of the macula lutea (the yellow spot in the macular, the center of the retina), which is damaged by oxidation caused by years of exposure to sunlight. Studies show that lutein-rich foods may play a significant role in reducing the risk of macular degeneration.

Lutein is also helpful in reducing formation of cataracts, which is believed to result from oxidation of the eye's lens. When cataracts form, a cloudy area over the lens causes vision to become blurred and distorted; studies show that people who eat spinach, broccoli and kale (all of which are rich in lutein) have a reduced risk of cataracts.

What to Eat
Most Americans do not consume adequate amounts of lutein-rich foods, and as diseases such as atherosclerosis, certain types of cancer, as well as serious eye conditions, take years to develop, health professionals advocate getting an early start by eating lutein-rich foods. Foods you should consume to get more lutein are kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, corn, broccoli, zucchini, squash, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, celery, and egg yolks.

Author: Maureen Mulhern-White
Date Published: 05/23/2000
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