Healthy Eating Tips

Carotenoids Are the Bone-Strengthening Anti-Inflammatory Agent Dietitians Say We Should Be Eating More Of

Photo: Stocksy/Cameron Whitman
One of the first things that comes to mind when considering the health benefits of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, orange bell peppers, and carrots, is their rich antioxidant content. Antioxidants are, after all, highly-lauded compounds known for fighting free radicals in the body and providing heart-healthy, immune-boosting, and anti-inflammatory benefits.

There are different kinds of antioxidants—vitamin E and resveratrol are two such examples. However, the antioxidants found in  the particular fruits and veggies above, all of which tout an orange-pigmented hue, are powerful phytochemicals that fall under the carotenoid family.

What are carotenoids, exactly?

“Carotenoids are a group of fat-soluble pigments found in yellow, orange, and red plants like carrots, squash, and some leafy greens," says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of Champagne Nutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook. "One such form of carotenoid we often hear about is beta-carotene, which gets converted into vitamin A in the body.” According to Hultin, there are other forms of carotenoids in addition to beta-carotene, including α-Carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin, all of which have the same properties. "There are three more: lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene," she says.

Health benefits of carotenoids

1. Carotenoids help lower your risk of chronic illness, particularly heart disease and age-related eye diseases.

Carotenoids offer heart health protection against age-related disease and promote longevity. “According to research, carotenoids are associated with a decrease in risk of chronic illness as well as with a positive effect on bone metabolism,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook. "This includes reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, prostate cancer in men, and age-related eye diseases, including cataracts and macular degeneration.”

2. They're great for boosting your overall eye health.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are the main carotenoids involved with eye health, and they’re found in the retina of the eye to help absorb blue light and support visual function, as well as offer protection against optical disease and free-radical damage.

3. Carotenoids help with muscle recovery.

According to Harris-Pincus, carotenoids also help with muscle recovery post-workout, and have anti-inflammatory properties to speed the process of repairing and rebuilding muscles and replenishing depleted energy stores. That’s why it's smart to include carotenoid-rich foods in your post-exercise snacks—and because they're fat-soluble, be sure to consume them with healthy fats for maximum nutrient absorption.

4. They boost your immune system.

Because beta-carotene gets converted into vitamin A in the body, it plays an important role in supporting your immune health.

5. Carotenoids may improve bone strength and density

Epidemiological studies suggest that high intakes of carotenoids help maintain bone health, particularly beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, which could reduce your risk of osteoporosis and hip fractures. Carotenoids may play a role in osteoporosis prevention and in reducing bone loss, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine. “Lutein has also been shown to enhance bone mass by suppressing bone resorption and stimulating bone formation,” says Harris-Pincus.

“There have been some large studies, including the Framingham Osteoporosis Study, which found that people who consumed higher levels of both total and individual carotenoids may have a lower risk of hip fractures,” Hultin adds. Keep in mind, however, that this suggests you would have to eat a very rich supply of beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin in order to reap the bone density benefits for protection against falls, accidents, and fractures. This research is also heavily based on animal studies; human research is limited. While more research is clearly needed, there is promising data to back it up.

Carotenoid-rich foods

Red, yellow, orange, and dark green are the colors that are most indicative of high carotenoid content. "Starchy vegetables, like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, and other root vegetables tend to be top-of-mind when considering carotenoid-rich foods, as these are some of the strongest sources of beta-carotene," says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. "However, there are other foods filled with carotenoids worth considering adding to your meal rotation." For instance, tomatoes, watermelon, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, and apricots are all healthy examples of carotenoid-rich foods.

Keep in mind that carotenoids are not listed on food labels—so while you might see vitamin A listed on a product and it may contain carotenoids, the food may not be exclusively carotenoid-based and there’s no knowing the amount of carotenoids you'll reap from eating the product. To make things easy, here are a few examples of carotenoid-rich foods with their respective antioxidant values, as categorized by the type of carotenoid present, according to Hultin. You’ll see which colors are generally highest in carotenoid quality and quantity and a rough estimate of carotenoid content per serving.

  • Pumpkin puree: 1 cup has 11.7 mg α-Carotene; 17 mg beta carotene; 3.6 mg β-cryptoxanthin
  • Cooked carrots: 1 cup has 5.9 mg α-Carotene
  • Baked sweet potato: 1 medium-sized sweet potato has 13.1 mg beta-carotene
  • Papaya: 1 medium-sized papaya has 2.3 mg β-cryptoxanthin
  • Canned tomato paste: 1 cup has 75.4 mg lycopene
  • Canned tomato puree: 1 cup has 54.4 mg lycopene
  • Spinach (cooked): 1 cup has 13.8 mg beta-carotene; 29.8 mg lutein and zeaxanthin
  • Kale (cooked): 1 cup has 25.6 mg lutein and zeaxanthin

Jones recommends incorporating carotenoid-rich foods in dips, salads, or adding to eggy breakfast bowls. “You can also gab a jar of roasted red peppers to add to homemade wraps, grains, or frittatas—and enjoy canned tomatoes, which actually contain more bioavailable lycopene than fresh tomatoes,” says Jones. “Add frozen spinach and kale to everything from smoothies to stews and to pasta dishes, and enjoy dried apricots for a snack when fresh apricots aren't in season.” Whatever dish you choose, remember to consume carotenoid-rich foods with fat when possible for increased absorption.

You can also make this delicious sweet potato tart to get your carotenoid fix:

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