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By doing a simple Google search, you might come across articles boasting the nutritional values of carrots as one of the healthiest foods people can eat. There are several different reasons these websites purport carrots have various health benefits and disease-preventing qualities, but I was skeptical about how true these claims were.

The most popular bragging right attributed to carrots is their ability to improve (some even say perfect) your vision. It is common adage repeated by adults in an effort to get their children to eat their veggies. This belief began its reign in popularity because of war propaganda put out by the British during World War II to explain how the British soldiers had been able to improve their night vision to extremely acute levels. The propaganda promoted simply eating more of the orange vegetables as the cause (1).

Vitamin A is necessary for healthy eyesight. It goes through your blood to your retina where it is converted into a chemical called retinal which, when hit by light, starts a complicated electrochemical process that eventually results in vision. Carrots are high in a nutrient called beta-carotene, which your liver turns into Vitamin A when you eat them (2). More carrots equals more beta-carotene equals more vitamin A equals better eyesight. Makes sense. Right?

 

Unfortunately, this myth is not really true. While there is that connection between vitamin A and vision, scientists explain that you only need a certain small amount of vitamin A to satisfy the need, and after that, extra vitamin A doesn’t do anything for your vision. Because the necessary amount is quite small, most normal healthy people already consume enough to meet their body’s needs. While that person may not necessarily have perfect 20/20 vision, their problems wouldn’t be caused by a vitamin A deficiency and therefore consuming extra vitamin A would not do anything to fix it. They would simply need to go to an eye doctor and get glasses.

 

In developing countries where many people do not receive adequate nutrition, vitamin A deficiency is a pretty common problem. These people, who live in countries in Africa and Central and South America, may indeed improve their vision by consuming more carrots. Again, their benefit would be due to the fact that they did not have enough vitamin A to support eyesight in the first place. Most importantly, they would improve their dark adaptation, or their ability to adjust their vision when the environment changes from light to dark (3). This is the first and most vision common problem faced by people with vitamin A deficiency.

 

The reason the myth was so believable when promoted through the propaganda was because there is that inkling of truth at its core. What had really happened, though, was that the British Air Forces had begun using radar technology to better target the enemy. The government decided to use carrots as an excuse to cover up the truth about the British Air Force’s new technological improvement. To keep it a secret they used the media, particularly newspapers, to help spread the rumor.

 

Another popular claim about carrots is that they can potentially lower a person’s risk for lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. This benefit is again attributed to the high content of beta-carotene and vitamin A. In a study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, the data concludes that not only is this hypothesis completely false but that there may in face be negative consequences in terms of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease for those who consume extra beta-carotene and vitamin A (4).

While The New England Journal of Medicine certainly seems like a trustworthy source of information, it is important to scrutinize the methodology and timeliness of its findings. The subject pool of the study consisted of men ages forty-five to seventy-four who had been exposed to lung cancer-causing asbestos, and men and women ages fifty to sixty-nine who have a history of being heavy smokers. Given that the participants were all pretty old and had an extremely high predisposed risk to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, it is not as shocking that eating carrots could not reverse their problems.

 

With that in mind, we should not necessarily accept this study as killing our hopes about the health benefit of carrots. The articles that make the claim in favor of carrots’ benefits often cite a ten-year study done in the Netherlands, which found optimistic results. This study had a subject pool of more “normal” participants. By that I mean they were not particularly at high risk for cardiac problems, but they weren’t health nuts either. The researchers measured participants’ consumption of different categories of fruits and vegetables over a long period of time and then compared their overall consumption levels, as well as consumption levels of each specific category of fruit or vegetables, to the subject’s levels of CHD, or Coronary Heart Disease. The results of the study found that, “showed that deep orange fruit and vegetables and their largest contributor, carrots, were strongly associated with a lower risk of incident CHD (5)”.

 

Yet another study, which I was unable to access the full report on due to restrictions on the database, found that rats fed large quantities of carrots had fewer precancerous tumors in their colons (8). It is unwise to come to any conclusions about humans based solely on data collected from rats, but that does not stop health-related websites from boasting this in a factual manner as a health benefit.

 

One last popular claim about why people should eat more carrots is that they are supposedly really great for your skin! Nutrients in carrots can have lots of different healing effects on the skin. Yet again, the rich levels of beta-carotene and vitamin A get credit for this property. Vitamin A is extremely helpful for patients suffering from chronic eczema because it flushes toxins out of the skin. In fact, you do not even need to eat the carrots to have their nutrients help relieve eczema. Simply grating carrots and leaving them on your skin for about 20 minutes can be helpful (6).

 

Some people believe that carrots have anti-aging qualities. Carrots are full of anti-oxidants that come from the beta-carotene (7) and they help slow down the natural aging process of cells. Furthermore, many propose that the vitamin A and antioxidants in carrots can protect your skin from sun damage, premature wrinkling, acne, dry skin, blemishes, and uneven skin tone.

 

According to Medline Plus, which is written and put out by the National Institute of Health, the effectiveness rating for these benefits is only rated as “effective” for treating sun sensitivity in people with a special blood disorder called erythropoietic protoporphyria (9). It is rated as “possibly effective” for preventing sunburn in people who are especially sensitive to the sun but likely ineffective for regular people.

 

The most enticing skin-related benefit, though, is the promise that eating carrots and other deep colored fruits and vegetables will make your skin glow a healthy-looking color. It is true that carrots are high in carotenoids which are a nutrient that make your skin look more reddish or yellowish, rather than pale (10). When eaten in proper amounts, your skin may gain a healthy color and “glow”. However, if you go overboard and eat too many carrots, you face the risk of getting carotenosis. Carotenosis is the presence of too much carotenoids in the blood and causes your skin to turn yellow or orange (12). This sounds like the biggest myth of all, but it is totally factual. While the condition is pretty much harmless to have, I can say that personally I wouldn’t want to be that bright orange weirdo!  Don’t worry too much though, because it goes away once the carotenoids have time to leave your system.

 

Overall, it seems that eating more carrots certainly can’t hurt (unless you’re really paranoid about turning orange). Though they won’t give you superpower night vision, they are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, low in calories, and potentially have many positive health benefits.

Sources:

1. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2005/10/26/1392430.htm?site=science/greatmomentsinscience

 

2. http://www.sanmateomedicalcenter.org/healthlibrary/default.aspx?id=300&sid=1&EBSCOID=156972

 

3. Sivakumar, B. (1998). Current controversies in carotene nutrition. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 108, 157-66. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/195981378?accountid=14667

 

4. Omenn, G.S., Goodman, G.E., Thornquist M.D., Balmes, J., Cullen, M.R., Glass, A., Keogh, J.P., Meyskens, F.L, Valanis, B., Williams, J.H., Barnhart, S., & Hammar, S. (May 2, 1996). Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. The New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199605023341802 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199605023341802#t=articleTop

 

5. Oude Griep, L.,M., Monique Verschuren, ,W.M., Kromhout, D., Ocké, M.,C., & Geleijnse, J. M. (2011). Colours of fruit and vegetables and 10-year incidence of CHD. The British Journal of Nutrition, 106(10), 1562-9. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007114511001942

 

6. http://www.bodyenlightenment.me/blog/2011/04/raw-food-spotlight-carrots-for-glowing-skin/

 

7. http://www.care2.com/greenliving/10-benefits-of-carrots.html

 

8. http://nutrition.about.com/od/healthyfood1/a/carrotscancer.htm

 

9. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/999.html

 

10. http://www.youbeauty.com/nutrition/carotenoids

 

11. http://livelovefruit.com/2014/02/7-reasons-eat-carrots/

 

12. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2011/08/26/friday-weird-science-too-many-carrots-and-why-you-should-believe-your-dad/

One Response to “What are carrots really good for?”

  1. Julia Liss says:

    I could not for the life of me figure out how to do the read more thing…sorry for the long post!!

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