In case you were wondering, a tomato is a technically a fruit, because it’s seed-bearing and develops from the ovary of a flowering plant. (Botanically speaking, vegetables consist of other plant parts, like roots, leaves, and stems.) But when it comes to nutrition, tomatoes —along with seedy cucumbers and zucchini—are categorized as vegetables. That’s due in part to their lower carb and sugar contents: A medium tomato provides just 22 calories, and about 5 grams of total carb, with 3 as sugar and 1.5 as fiber. But this low-calorie, low-carb package is chock-full of nutrients, and has been linked to a variety of health benefits. Here are seven, along with some simple ways to incorporate more tomatoes into your everyday meals and snacks.
Tomatoes are a great source of vitamins
A single tomato can provide about 40% of the daily recommended minimum of vitamin C. What’s more, tomatoes supply vitamin A, which supports immunity, vision, and skin health; vitamin K, which is good for your bones; and potassium, a key nutrient for heart function, muscle contractions, and maintaining a healthy blood pressure and fluid balance.
They protect heart health
Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene, which is responsible for their red color. Research suggests that in terms of heart health benefits, it’s more effective to eat tomatoes and tomato products than take lycopene supplements. Other studies have shown that higher blood levels of lycopene are tied to lower death rates for people with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that raise the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
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Improve you vision
Lycopene is also good for your eyes. And that’s not the only peeper-protective nutrient in tomatoes; they contain lutein and beta-carotene as well. According to research, those nutrients support vision and protect against eye conditions including cataracts and macular degeneration.
Boost digestive health
The fluid and fiber in tomatoes may be helpful if you’re prone to constipation. (According to the USDA one large tomato contains 6 ounces of fluid, and 1.5 grams of fiber.) Just be aware that in some people, the acidity from cooked tomatoes may trigger or worsen acid reflux and indigestion.
Help with diabetes management
Tomatoes may be a protective food for people with type 2 diabetes: In one study, people with diabetes who supplemented with cooked tomatoes for 30 days experienced a decrease in lipid peroxidation, a chain reaction in which substances called free radicals attack fat, leading to damage that ups the risk of heart disease. This is particularly important, because diabetes doubles the risk of stroke and heart attack.
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Guard skin health
A 2011 study found that the combination of tomato paste and olive oil protected against sun damage, and boosted the production of pro-collagen, a molecule that gives the skin its structure and keeps it firm and youthful. Scientists believe that the lycopene in tomatoes is key. It’s at its highest concentration when tomatoes have been cooked, and olive oil boosts its absorption from your digestive system into your bloodstream.
Protect against cancer
Observational studies have found links between the superstar compound lycopene and fewer incidences of prostate, ovarian, lung, and stomach cancers.
How to reap all the perks of tomatoes
Your can incorporate tomatoes into your diet in a number of forms—fresh, dried, or as sauce, salsa, or paste. This also allows you to enjoy tomatoes year-round.
Add fresh tomatoes to omelets and salads, and serve them sliced, drizzled with balsamic and garnished with fresh basil, sea salt, and cracked black pepper. Dress fresh greens or steamed veggies with sundried tomato pesto, or drizzle it over broiled fish. Toss spaghetti squash or beans with tomato sauce, or use it as a topping for sautéed green beans or potatoes. Add salsa to scrambled eggs or taco salad, or spoon onto cooked fish, black beans, or brown rice. Use tomato paste in veggie chili, or mix it into hummus, along with roasted garlic and harissa. Bon appétit.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.