Why Your Body Needs Beta-Carotene

Learn about the health benefits of beta-carotene and why it is important to your body.

Beta-carotene belongs to a group of pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids are responsible for giving certain fruits and vegetables an orange, yellow or red color. Beta-carotene is a provitamin, a carotenoid, which means that it is easily converted to vitamin A or retinol by the human body. Beta-carotene converts itself to vitamin A in the intestines and is stored in the liver until needed by the body.

Beta-carotene is not toxic when consumed in large amounts because it is believed that the body will convert to vitamin A only what it needs. Side effects of too much beta-carotene include diarrhea and a yellow or orange cast to the skin, especially on the hands and feet.

Vitamin A is obtained through animal foods and is highly toxic in large doses. Deficiencies of vitamin A are rare in the United States and supplements are generally not necessary.

Beta-carotene is also a powerful antioxidant, similar to vitamins E and C. Antioxidants protect the body from damage caused by the toxic byproducts of normal cellular metabolism that may cause cancer and other diseases.

What Foods Contain Beta-Carotene?

Beta-carotene is best obtained through diet and not supplements. Foods containing beta-carotene include pumpkin, cantaloupe, apricots, squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, green peppers, and romaine lettuce. The green color of chlorophyll masks the orange color in dark green leafy vegetables. Cooking does not destroy the beneficial properties of beta-carotene in foods

There is no recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for beta-carotene. When looking at the nutritional value of foods, look for the percentage of vitamin A. Five or more servings of carotenoid rich fruits and vegetables should be adequate to maintain sufficient levels for the body to convert into vitamin A.

Why does Your Body Need It?

The body uses beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A) in many ways. The skeletal, immune, and reproductive systems, eyes, teeth, hair, skin, mucous membranes all need the correct balance and amounts of vitamin A to function optimally. Vitamin A is important in embryonic development as well.

Vitamin A is found in the pigmented of the part of the retina that is associated with light sensitivity. Insufficient levels of vitamin A in the retina result in the inability of the eyes to adapt to darkness, causing night blindness.

The immune system does not function as well with low levels of Vitamin A. A lack of this vitamin affects skin cells, and mucous production in the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts, all of which provide barriers against infections. It is also crucial in the development of lymphocytes, or the white blood cells that fight infection.

Vitamin A is associated with proper bone growth and formation, the formation of red blood cells and ensuring that adequate levels of hemoglobin are present in these cells.

A deficiency in vitamin A adversely affects hormone production in the reproductive systems of both men and women. Low levels of vitamin A can also affect genes that regulate growth, impeding normal development in a fetus, possibly resulting in birth defects or other abnormalities.

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