[the carotenoid that makes carrots orange] in preventing disease. It’s now lutein,” says Frederick Khachik, Ph.D., senior researcher at the University of Maryland. “Lutein is just as important to health, or more so, than beta carotene.”
While no recommended daily allowance has been determined for this powerhouse nutrient, experts recommend 4-6 mg a day. However, federal surveys found that the average American consumes only about 2 mg of lutein daily.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this could easily be doubled by eating a salad consisting of one cup of spinach and one egg (which would give you 4 mg of lutein). Why should you care about how much lutein you’re eating?
Health Benefits Galore
- Protect your eyes. One of lutein’s most talked about qualities is its ability to protect against cataracts and macular degeneration — two of the most common age-related eye disorders in the United States. Lutein (along with zeaxanthin, another carotenoid) forms the yellow pigment of the retina and absorbs blue light, a harmful component of sunlight, says Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. Researchers also suspect that lutein’s antioxidant actions help to protect the eyes from light-induced oxidative damage.
- Protect your heart. A study conducted at the University of Southern California found that people with the highest levels of lutein had no increase in plaque in their arteries after 18 months. On the contrary, those with the lowest levels had increased plaque. Interestingly, when researchers covered human arteries (removed in surgery) with lutein, they attracted fewer white cells, which are part of the artery-clogging process, according to Dr. Weil.
- Protect your brain. The USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Lab at Tufts University named spinach one of the five superfoods to keep your mind sharp. Why? Spinach is packed with lutein, which appears to help protect the aging brain.
- Protect your skin. Research suggests that 6-10 mg of lutein daily (along with other nutrients) may provide enough antioxidants to reduce oxidative damage to the skin.
- Fight cancer. Though conclusive studies are still being sought, lutein is thought to increase the death rate of cancer cells. It also appears to decrease the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors and may cause changes in the way DNA is repaired.
- Keep your lungs ‘young.’ People who eat the most lutein have “younger” lungs — by one to two years — than people who don’t, according to research at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This finding is especially important for smokers.
- Fight arthritis. People with the highest levels of lutein were about 70 percent less likely to have arthritis of the knee, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Even though lutein is yellow, its color gets covered up by the chlorophyll in leafy greens.
Looking for Lutein?
Lutein is found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but it appears that the best source of lutein is from egg yolks, simply because it is more readily absorbed by the body.
In fact, when 10 volunteers ate different sources of lutein (spinach, eggs or one of two types of lutein supplements, each of which provided 6 mg of lutein per day), eggs came out on top. Those who ate eggs as their lutein source had blood levels of lutein that were about three times higher than that of those who ate other lutein sources.
The researchers suspect that other components in the egg yolk, such as lecithin, are responsible for its superior absorbability.
This is not to say that eggs are the only way to get lutein — far from it. Following is a list of some excellent sources of lutein:
11 Top Food Sources of Lutein
- Turnip greens
- Collard greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Garden peas
- Brussels sprouts
Who Needs Lutein?
Everyone who’s interested in fighting off disease and the effects of aging could use to get a little more lutein in their diets. If you smoke or drink alcohol regularly, you could definitely benefit from the extra antioxidant protection (likewise for those who don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables).
Keep in mind, though, that lutein is fat-soluble, which means you need some fat to absorb it. (So, if you’re eating a spinach salad, a little olive oil should do the trick.)
DrWeil.com: Lutein: Good for Your Eyes and Heart?
The World’s Healthiest Foods: Lutein and Zeaxanthin
USDA: Absorbing News About Eggs and Lutein
USA Weekend Magazine: The Little Antioxidant With Big Benefits