Study: Veggies, Still Really Good for You

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Your mom wasn’t lying about those veggies. A new study released by the Archives of Internal Medicine reveals that people with high blood levels of the antioxidant alpha-carotene — found in a variety of vegetables — were less likely to die during a 14-year longitudinal study, compared with people with low levels of the carotenoid.

According to the study, a major contributor to chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease may be oxygen-related damage of DNA, protein and fat cells. That damage can be mitigated by the antioxidant action of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and lycopene. Most people get these nutrients through foods, like fruits and veggies, that are loaded with them. (More on 5 Ways to Get Oatmeal in Your Diet, Deliciously)

For the new study, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitored alpha-carotene levels in the blood of 15,318 adults, age 20 or older, who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Follow-up Study between 1988 and 1994. In 2006, researchers surveyed how many of their sample had died and from what cause. They found that 3,810 had died, and that people with the highest levels of alpha-carotene in the blood were significantly less likely to die than those with lowest levels.

Compared with the lowest-level group, those with between 0 and 1 micrograms of alpha-carotene per deciliter of blood — a small, but normal amount — people who had between 2 and 3 mcg/dL of alpha-carotene were 23% less likely to die of any cause. What’s more, the risk of death decreased as alpha-carotene increased: people with 4–5 mcg/dL were 27% less likely to die than people in the lowest-level group; the reduction in death risk was 34% for those in the 6–8 mcg/dL group, and 39% for people in the highest-level group, with 9 mcg/dL or higher. (More on Top 10 Protected Foods)

In addition to the overall lower risk of all-cause mortality, researchers also found a lower risk of cancer and heart disease in people with high levels of alpha-carotene. This is noteworthy in light of a recent observational study that found that eating vegetables didn’t do much to prevent cancer. Still, other evidence has suggested that high-veggie diets are associated with lower heart disease risk and that certain vegetables contain powerful cancer-fighting compounds.

Indeed, the authors of the current study note that alpha-carotene, which is found in yellow-orange veggies like carrots, squash and sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens like kale, broccoli, spinach and collard greens, may be particularly effective in inhibiting the growth of certain cancers. (More on Figuring Out Food Labels)

Americans could use a push to eat more vegetables. In a recent survey, the CDC found that less than a third of adults eat even two servings of fruit each day and only a quarter eat three servings of vegetables. Hopefully the new evidence will remind some people to up their intake.

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