For sufferers of depression and similar mood disorders, there’s a good reason to take a closer look at the humble tomato. A recent study led by researcher Kaijun Niu of China’s Tianjin Medical University in 2012 found that eating tomatoes a few times per week can go a long way in warding off depression. Researchers studied the mental health and dietary habits of 986 elderly men and women 70 years of age or older. They discovered that individuals who ate tomatoes, cooked or raw, 2-6 times every week were 46 percent less likely to experience depression symptoms than individuals who ate tomatoes only once a week or less. Depression is a major psychological disorder in the U.S., especially among women and the elderly. An estimated 20 percent of people suffer from depression at least once in their lifetime. Critics argue that this study doesn’t have strong enough evidence to prove the tomato’s effectiveness against depression, and it’s true, one of the greatest weaknesses of cross-sectional studies like this is that they can’t prove cause and effect—they can only shed light on associations. In other words, this link between eating more tomatoes and having fewer depression symptoms may just be a sign that individuals who eat lots of tomatoes are more likely to eat lots of other fruits and veggies and have an overall healthier lifestyle. Even if that is the case, study proponents state that it is still a good sign that eating tomatoes as a part of a healthy lifestyle can help ward off depression and other cognitive issues.
How It Works
One of the most well-known nutritional attributes of the tomato is its rich supply of lycopene, an antioxidant that helps give the tomato its signature red color. Interestingly, lycopene differs from many other nutrients in its bioavailability. While most nutrients become locked up or less available to the body after cooking, lycopene actually becomes more available, which is good news for all the marinara sauce and tomato soup fans out there. Tomatoes also contain anti-inflammatory agents. This anti-inflammatory property of the tomato, in addition to its antioxidant content, may be responsible for improving cognitive function and psychological well-being. While the exact process of how tomato nutrients influence brain health was not explored in this study, the Journal of Affective Disorders, which published the study, reports that the reduction of “oxidative stress,” or damage to otherwise healthy brain cells, may play a large role. Interestingly, other fruits and veggies don’t share the positive mood-boosting qualities of the tomato, the study found. Cabbage, onions and even other orange foods like carrots and pumpkin showed little to no effect on the subjects’ psychological health.
- Lycopene: The most powerful carotenoid antioxidant. It’s found in greater quantities in tomatoes than any other food.
- Beta-carotene: Another antioxidant that’s also present in mangoes and carrots. Like lycopene, it plays a role in giving the tomato its color.
- Folic acid: A form of vitamin B that is critical to the development and maintenance of the central nervous system
- Vitamins A, C, E
Other Health Benefits
Besides warding off depression, tomatoes are also credited with helping prevent a wide range of health issues. Some of the most well-known benefits of eating tomatoes are:
- Lowers risk of cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s
- Reduces risk of bone loss and osteoporosis
- Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
- Lowers risk of some cancers
- Lowers risk of skin damage from UV rays
- Promotes prostate health
Picking the Best Tomato
According to recent research, not all tomatoes are created equal. According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, organic and heirloom tomatoes contain more antioxidants and other nutrients than conventional tomatoes. This suggests that, for the greatest mood-boosting effect, heirloom tomatoes grown in your own garden or sold at the local farmer’s market are your best bet, and offer the most nutrient punch for your money.
Before you jump to make a tomato-mozzarella salad, consider this: eating too many tomatoes, especially at the expense of other fruits and veggies, could have drawbacks for some people. Because of their acidic nature, raw tomatoes in particular can trigger heartburn in people with sensitive stomachs and a painful episode in those suffering from acid reflux disease. As studies like this one show, tomatoes are a nutritious and beneficial savory fruit that can offer numerous health benefits to people of any age. When included in a well-balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, this simple fruit can even help defend against depression. It’s yet another reason to boost your intake of fruits and vegetables in order to eat your way to health and happiness.