Are carrots the key to a healthy heart? A new study found that individuals with a high level of carotenes in their blood are likely to have a lower degree of atherosclerosis in their arteries, consequently reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Conducted by researchers from the Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS) and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), the study focused on carotenes, bioactive compounds that are abundant in yellow, orange, and green fruits and vegetables such as carrots, spinach, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
While the positive impact of diet on cardiovascular health is well-established, previous research on carotenes’ effect on atherosclerosis (a condition where arteries become narrow and hardened) has yielded inconclusive results.
Surprisingly, studies on carotene supplements have even suggested potential harm.
Led by Gemma Chiva Blanch, a prominent figure in the IDIBAPS translational research in diabetes, lipids, and obesity group, the research team shed light on the positive correlation between carotenes and cardiovascular health.
Atherosclerosis, characterized by the accumulation of LDL or “bad” cholesterol on the inner walls of blood vessels, can lead to the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, which narrow the vessel’s diameter and impede blood flow. In some cases, these plaques may rupture and form clots, resulting in heart attacks or ischemic strokes when blood flow to the heart or brain is obstructed.
To investigate this further, the research team examined 200 participants aged 50 to 70 from the Carotid Atherosclerosis in Newly Diagnosed Type 2 Diabetic Individuals (DIABIMCAP) cohort. The participants’ blood samples were analyzed to measure carotene concentrations, while ultrasound imaging was used to assess the presence of atherosclerotic plaques in the carotid artery.
Fruit and vegetables lower cholesterol
The study found that people with atherosclerosis had lower levels of large HDL particles (also known as “good” cholesterol) compared to those without atherosclerosis. The researchers also observed that there were positive connections between α-carotene (a type of antioxidant found in certain fruits and vegetables) and both large and medium HDL particles.
On the other hand, they noticed that β-carotene (another type of antioxidant) and total carotene were inversely related to LDL and its medium/small particles.
Furthermore, the study revealed that individuals with atherosclerosis had significantly lower levels of total carotene in their blood compared to those without the condition. As the number of atherosclerotic plaques (buildup in the arteries) increased, the concentrations of carotene in the blood decreased.
However, when accounting for various other factors, the inverse relationship between β-carotene and total carotene with plaque burden remained significant only in women.
Chiva Blanch, also an associate professor and researcher at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the UOC, emphasized the significance of their findings. “The study concludes that the greater the concentration of carotenes in the blood, the lesser the atherosclerotic burden, particularly in women,” Chiva Blanch said in a statement.
“So, we can confirm that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and thus in carotenes lowers the risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases,” Chiva Blanch added.
The findings of the study, published in the medical journal Clinical Nutrition, highlight the potential benefits of incorporating carotene-rich foods into one’s diet to mitigate the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, emphasizing the importance of a healthy and balanced diet.
Further research is needed to delve deeper into the mechanisms underlying the protective effects of carotenes and to explore potential strategies for incorporating them into preventive and therapeutic interventions for cardiovascular health.
Plant-based diet and cardiovascular disease
The study serves as a reminder that small changes in dietary habits can have a significant impact on long-term health outcomes, particularly in the context of cardiovascular diseases, which remain a leading cause of mortality worldwide.
Many studies have shown the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption when it comes to heart health. One study published earlier this year in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that a plant-based diet is among several healthy eating patterns linked to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or respiratory disease.
The study participants were scored based on four dietary pattern indexes: Healthy Eating Index 2015, Alternate Mediterranean Diet, Healthful Plant-based Diet Index, and Alternate Healthy Eating Index.
According to the study results, sticking closely to at least one of these diets was associated with lower risk of premature death from all causes, and from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease.
The researchers believe that the reason for the similarity in the associations between diet quality and death is that all four dietary patterns share the key component of being high in plant foods, specifically whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.