Can Tomatoes Help Lower Your Cholesterol?

Research shows this juicy nightshade veggie may indeed benefit the heart

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Tomatoes are best-known for two things: Their essential role in many delectable Italian dishes, and their especially high content of the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which researchers believe offers cancer protection. But can tomatoes also benefit the heart? Diets high in tomato products have been shown in some studies to be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, but researchers aren't entirely sure why.

Here is what we know as of now about this juicy nightshade vegetable and how it may help your ticker. 

The Link Between Tomatoes and Low Cholesterol 

A 2014 study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology investigated the effects of dietary tomato juice intake on inflammation, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol, all of which are implicated in metabolic syndrome. Participants who supplemented their diets with tomato juice experienced a significant reduction in inflammation markers such as TNF-α and IL-6, as well as an improvement in endothelial function (which is correlated with a lower risk of atherosclerosis) when compared to the control group. As if that wasn't astounding enough, a pronounced reduction in LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and a slight increase in HDL, or "good" cholesterol, occurred in the tomato juice-drinking group. 

Another, slightly older study published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked specifically at the effect of tomato product consumption on blood cholesterol levels and LDL oxidation.

 When LDL becomes oxidized, it can contribute to the formation of plaque on the walls of arteries. Participants consumed either a 3-week no-tomato diet, or a 3-week high tomato diet composed of tomato juice and tomato ketchup. At the end of the study, the high tomato diet participants had a 5.9% reduction in total cholesterol and a 12.9% reduction in LDL cholesterol when compared to the no-tomato group.

 Another surprising finding was that the lycopene found in the tomatoes reduced the presence of oxidized LDL

Yet another study, published in 2012 in The Journal of Nutrition, found that women who consumed at least 10 servings of tomato-based products a week had significant, but clinically modest, improvements in total cholesterol, their total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio, and their hemoglobin A1c compared to women who ate less than one and a half servings per week.

A few studies have indicated that lycopene may interact with HMG CoA reductase, an enzyme in the liver that helps make cholesterol in the body. It is thought that this property may contribute to the positive effect tomatoes had on lipids in some of these studies. 

How to Eat More Tomatoes—Without Binging on Pizza 

Though these studies were small and more research is needed to determine whether lycopene can reduce heart disease risk on its own, they certainly demonstrate a link between tomatoes and cholesterol levels. They also suggest that tomatoes are a great addition to your cholesterol-lowering diet. And since they are rich in vitamins A and C, folic acid (which keeps homocysteine levels in check and reduces heart disease risk), and antioxidants, as well as  phytosterols and fiber, you'll be reaping other health benefits as well—that is, unless you load up on pizza and white pasta, which are high in refined carbohydrates.

 

There are many ways to increase your intake of tomatoes without risking weight gain or insulin resistance. Go easy on the rich Italian fare and try these ideas instead:

  • Dice tomatoes and add them to your morning egg scramble.
  • Make a classic Caprese salad with low-fat mozzarella cheese and basil.
  • Add grape tomatoes to your chicken and zucchini stir-fry dinner.
  • Top your white fish fillet with roasted cherry tomatoes.
  • Make a marinara sauce to top whole wheat or brown rice pasta primavera (fresh vegetables). 

Sources:

Periago MJ, Jacob K, Boehm V et al. Influence of lycopene and vitamin C from tomato juice on biomarker of oxidative stress and inflammation. Br J Nutr 2008; 99:137-146.

Sesso HD1, Wang LRidker PMBuring JE. Tomato-based food products are related to clinically modest improvements in selected coronary biomarkers in women .  J Nutr. 2012 Feb;142(2):326-33. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.150631. Epub 2012 Jan 5

Silaste ML, Alfthan G, Aro A et al. Tomato juice decreases LDL cholesterol levels and increases LDL resistence ot oxidation. Br J Nutr 2007;98:1251-1258.

Tsitsimpikou C, Tsarouhas K, Kioukia Fougia N et al. Dietary supplementation with tomato juice in patients with metabolic syndrome: a suggestion to alleviate detrimental clinical factors. Food Chem Toxicol 2014;74:9-13

Natural Standard. (2014). Lycopene [Monograph]. Retrieved from http://naturalstandard.com/databases/hw/all/patient-lycopene.asp

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