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When you break down food into macros, people mainly focus on the proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but there are a myriad of other micronutrients in food that are essential to protecting the body and making it function at its peak physical performance.

One of these micronutrient phytochemicals, carotenoids, also known as tetraterpenoids, are organic pigments found in plants and organisms that act as antioxidants. Within nature, they absorb light and assist in photosynthesis in plants and algaes. There are over 600 types of carotenoids, but I will focus on the most popular and most studied ones. Carotenoids are what give the plants and foods we eat their rich and vibrant colors fruits and vegetables that we eat and provide many health benefits to our bodies, especially to our eyes and skin. They help us combat free radicals, prevent diseases, and achieve overall healthy homeostasis. They also are essential in protecting the integrity of the skin and mucous membranes, hence why they are touted as natural "anti-aging" compounds. They are especially useful in protecting against macular degeneration and cancer (especially lung and skin cancer), and improving cardiovascular health by reducing inflammation in the body.

Carotenoids are fat-soluble and are absorbed more efficiently with healthy sources of fat such as avocado, coconut, grass-fed meats and free-range eggs, and other high-quality, raw and unrefined omega-3 rich oils such as flaxseed. Eating egg yolks and animal-based sources for carotenoids are especially useful because the natural fat in them makes the carotenoids much more absorbable! They are also better absorbed when you cut, chop, blend, or slightly cook them as they will be broken down and released easier into the bloodstream and into your cells.

We can further break carotenoids into more groups for easier understanding. First, we can divide them into carotenes and xanthophylls. The difference is that carotenes are hydrocarbons and have no oxygen, while xanthophylls do contain oxygen. These differences also effect what type of wavelengths are absorbed in the plants photosynthesis processes, and that is why carotenes tend to have more orange colors while xanthophylls are more yellow. The carotenes group include beta carotene, alpha carotene and lycopene. The xanthopylls group are lutein, zeaxanthin, astaxanthin and beta-cryptoxanthin. Within these two groups, they can then further be described as being "provitamin A" or retinol precursors, meaning that they can be converted into preformed vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are provitamin A carotenoids while lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin are not.

So now that we have a better idea of carotenoids, lets look at the top most studied carotenoids and where to find them!

1. Beta-carotene, alpha-carotene & beta cryptoxanthin - Beta carotene is a well known carotenoid is most commonly found in orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, avocado, and squash, but also in spinach, green vegetables and algae. It is "provitamin A" and converts to vitamin A in the body when needed, and has excellent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer qualities. Alpha carotene is very similar in structure to beta carotene and is also a precursor to Vitamin A (retinol) but has about half as much ability to do so compared to beta carotene. Cryptoxanthin, although it is also a precursor to Vitamin A like beta and alpha carotene, it is an xanthophyll and not a carotene. It is a minor carotenoid found in peaches, papayas, tangerines, and oranges. Along with other carotenoids, it forms an antioxidant barrier in the human skin. It also appears to protect women from cervical cancer.

When there is excess beta carotene that it is not absorbed, it can make the skin appear yellowish-orange. Just one thing to note, beta-carotene is not the same as retinol (vitamin A). As stated before, it can be converted into a usable form of retinol in the body when needed, but some individuals have a harder time with this conversion due to the genetic variants in the BCM01 gene - which are associated with the conversion of beta carotene into retinol. SO, just be aware that even if you are loading up on beta carotene, you may not be getting an adequate amount of retinol. With that in mind, in addition to fruits and vegetables, make sure you eat foods with readily available, or "preformed" Vitamin A such as beef liver, eggs, full fat organic dairy, grass-fed meats, fish.

2. Lutein and zeaxanthin - these two carotenoids, in the xanthophyll group, are specifically known for eye health, as they are the only ones found in the lens and retina of the eye, and are what gives the macula its yellow color. They actually help to build a shield in the form of a yellow-colored pigment that assists in protecting the eyes from the sun and from the free radicals that are formed over time from oxidation and harmful effects of certain light sources, particularly blue light. That being said, they are excellent in preventing and improving eye problems such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and vision loss. Foods rich in them are egg yolks, kiwi fruit, orange and red peppers, grapes, oranges, zucchini and squash. They are also densely found in cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens such as kale, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli and brussels sprouts.

3. Lycopene - this carotenoid is known for its rich red pigment and is especially beneficial for reducing risk of prostate related illnesses, cancers and cardiovascular problems. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits and improves skin health and protection from UV rays. There are studies done that show lycopene can provide natural pain relief, eye and brain protection, and also for building stronger bones. Tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, guava, papaya, and red bell peppers are some of the best sources of lycopene. Cooking tomatoes and peppers increases the amount of lycopene even more.

4. Astaxanthin - this keto-carotenoid, which also belongs to a class of compounds called terpenes is a pigment in aquatic animals such as krill, salmon, trout, and algae. Astaxanthin is a strong antioxidant that boosts the immune system, protects against cancer and also protects against UV rays. It is best absorbed with omega 3 oils. Taking it as a supplement acts as an internal sunscreen. I personally take this every day to protect my skin from the inside out as I prefer to not wear topical sunscreen. There are studies done as well that tout astaxanthin for enhancing physical performance by improving endurance and relieving muscle fatigue.

Now that we went through the run down of the top carotenoids, I've included below my favorite supplements to add to your nutrition regimen! I highly recommend the brand Jarrow's Formulas as they offer a great variety of products for carotenoid support with high quality ingredients.

Jarrow's Formulas "Carotenall" for Cardiovascular and Vision Health:

Jarrow's Formulas "Astaxanthin for Skin, Eye, and Immune health, 12 mg"

Jarrow Formulas "Lutein, Supports Vision and Macular Health, 20 mg"

Jarrow Formulas Lyco-Sorb, Supports Prostate & Cardiovascular Health, 10 mg

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