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Bright fruit and veg protects nerve cells

29th January 2013

A diet that is rich in brightly coloured foods could prevent or delay neuro-degenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, according to researchers in the United States.


Fruit and vegetables that are bright orange, red or yellow in colour contain carotenoids, and beta-carotene and lutein in particular appear to play a role in preventing or delaying ALS, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society.

Carotenoids are a source of vitiman A in food, and, along with vitamins C and E, are antioxidants.

Previous research suggests that oxidative stress plays a role in ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and researchers wanted to test which vitamins or carotenoids had a beneficial effect.

More than a million participants in five nationwide prospective study groups were included.

Data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP Diet and Health Study, the Cancer Prevention Study II-Nutrition Cohort, the Multiethnic Cohort, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, and the Nurses' Health Study was analysed.

Of these, 1,093 were identified as having ALS after people with unlikely food consumption patterns were eliminated.

According to study senior author Alberto Ascherio, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, it is important to understand the impact of diet on the development of ALS, and the current study is one of the largest so far to look at the role played by dietary antioxidants in preventing the disease.

ALS is a devastating disease that generally develops between the ages of 40 and 70, and affects more men than women, Ascherio said.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people are affected by ALS in the US alone, according to figures from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord which control voluntary muscle movements, causing them to degenerate and the patient to lose control of their muscles. Eventually, the muscles waste away through lack of use, and the person becomes paralysed.

Overall, the study subjects who reported a high total carotenoid intake had a lower risk of ALS than those with the lowest levels of intake.

However, there were other, related factors. People who ate more carotenoids were on the whole more likely to have an advanced degree, consume more vitamin C, take vitamin supplements, and to take more exercise than those who had the lowest levels of carotenoids in their diet.

The strongest connection to reduced risk came in those participants who consumed the highest amounts of beta-carotene and lutein, which is found in dark green vegetables.

However, researchers found that diets high in lycopene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and vitamin C did not reduce ALS risk.

According to Ascherio, the study suggests that eating a diet rich in carotenoids could help to prevent or delay the onset of the disease.

But he said that further studies of the role of certain food-based nutrients on ALS were needed to confirm and extend the results.

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