The health benefits of cantaloupes
The cantaloupe is a type of melon which is thought to originate in either Africa or Asia. It is recognisable by its scaly green skin and juicy orange flesh. They are great as a snack or the starter of a three course meal. They can also be used in fruit salads, and as the base of some delicious desserts. Although melon is a popular food in the UK, the health benefits associated with the cantaloupe are generally quite poorly understood. This article will provide you with some excellent reasons to add them to your regular diet.
One medium cantaloupe (about 550g) contains approximately 188 calories, and can serve 2 to 4 people. They contain no cholesterol which is brilliant for heart health, and they are very low in saturated fat and sodium. They are also extremely good nutritionally, as they contain high levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper and Manganese. A personal serving of 134g contains 46 calories, 91% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A, 82% of your RDA of vitamin C, 7% of your RDA of folate, 10% of your RDA of potassium, and between 3 and 7% of your RDA of the other nutrients mentioned above.
Below are detailed explanations of what each vitamin and mineral found in the cantaloupe can do for you. All of these nutrients are vital for maintaining a healthy diet, and although we are all told frequently that they are needed, knowing why can be really helpful in motivating us to keep including them in our diet.
Vitamin A is a product created in the bodily process of converting beta-carotene (a carotenoid, which will be explained later) found in plants, including the cantaloupe melon. Vitamin A is really important for a variety of functions in the body, but some of the largest roles it plays are bolstering the immune system, helping with vision in low-light conditions, and keeping skin healthy.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is one of the most important vitamins, and is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system. Most often associated with citrus fruits, vitamin C is actually found in a variety of foods including cantaloupes and strawberries. Its specific immune system functions include aiding in wound healing, maintaining the health of connective tissues, and protecting cells from damage.
Vitamin K is a slightly less well known vitamin. Its major role is in helping the body to form blood clots. These are thickened masses of blood which form in order to reduce bleeding from a wound, and vitamin K is vital for this process to occur. Unlike most other vitamins, the body does make a small amount of vitamin K itself, but in order to have enough to function effectively it is important to have top-ups from one’s diet. One portion of cantaloupe melon contains approximately 4% of the RDA for vitamin K.
Thiamin (also known as vitamin B1) is found in small amounts in most foods, but a lot of these foods are processed. During the food processing techniques, much of the thiamin is lost or rendered ineffective, which means we are getting significantly less thiamin in our diets than it first appears.
As such, finding natural sources of thaimin, such as the cantaloupe, is very important. 1 serving of cantaloupe contains approximately 4% of the RDA of thiamin. This is a vitamin which has a major role in producing energy from carbohydrates and fats, and is also involved in maintaining the structure and integrity of neurons (brain cells) which is vital for preventing brain damage.
Niacin, or vitamin B3, has many functions, including aiding with metabolic processes, and keeping the nervous system, digestive system, skin, hair and eyes healthy. It is also very good at raising levels of HDL cholesterol (‘good’ cholesterol), which plays a role in removing LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol, from the blood.
Vitamin B6 is found in meats, cereals, some carbohydrates, and yes, the cantaloupe. It is also known as pyridoxine, and has several important functions. These include allowing the body to store and use protein and carbohydrates in food (like the other B vitamins found in cantaloupes), and it is also useful in forming haemoglobin. This is a protein within red blood cells which allows oxygen to be carried around the body to vital organs.
Folic acid, or folate (its natural form) is associated with green foods, but the cantaloupe also contains a useful amount. It is very important in two main bodily processes; helping the body to form red blood cells, and protecting the body of a foetus from central nervous system defects such as spina bifida. Therefore, not only is it important for the general population, but pregnant women in particular may benefit from ensuring their diet is rich in folic acid.
Magnesium is the first mineral in this list; minerals are necessary nutrients for building strong bones, controlling bodily fluids inside and around cells, and turning the food you eat into energy. Magnesium is necessary in large amounts, and is particularly important for energy production, and within the body’s cells, magnesium has over 300 varied functions. It is also vital for the effective production and maintenance of bone, to ensure the body has a solid skeletal structure. 1 serving of cantaloupe provides approximately 4% of the RDA of magnesium.
Potassium is a type of electrolyte, which is a mineral that contains an electrical charge. It controls the balance of fluids in the body, and it is also thought to have a role in lowering blood pressure. Maintaining the right balance of potassium, along with other electrolytes, helps the body to counteract the negative effects of a high-sodium (salt) diet.
Potassium is also one of the ions which pass through cell membranes during action potentials (electrical signals in the body’s neurons which trigger conscious and unconscious bodily functions and behaviours). As such, it actually plays a role in most processes, and therefore it is important that the diet one consumes contains enough potassium. A portion of cantaloupe contains approximately 10% of the RDA of potassium, so it is a very good source of this vital mineral.
Copper is a mineral found throughout the body, and is necessary in processes such as the creation of red blood cells, and the maintenance of the health of nerve cells and the immune system. It also plays a role in helping the body to process iron, another mineral which is involved in the creation of haemoglobin among other processes. The body doesn’t require much copper, but what it does require needs to be obtained from foods; it is not created in the body. One serving of cantaloupes contains approximately 3% of the RDA of copper.
Manganese, which is sometimes confused with magnesium, is present in very small amounts in the body, and helps to form the connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors and sex hormones (such as testosterone and oestrogen) within the body. It has other roles as well, including metabolic processes, calcium absorption to ensure bones are healthy, and the regulation of blood sugar levels. As such, having the right amount of manganese can be particularly important for individuals with diabetes.
Benefits of Cantaloupes
Although eating cantaloupes can provide the body with all sorts of general benefits due to the nutrients they provide, they are also associated with being beneficial for specific health problems:
- Metabolic Syndrome
- High Blood Pressure
- Skin and Hair Problems
- Muscle Cramps
It is the current stance that many cancers are caused by free radicals. These are atoms in the body (mostly oxygen atoms) which have an unpaired electron, making them very unstable and reactive. In an attempt to find another electron to pair with in order to stabilise themselves, these atoms cause a trail of destruction throughout the body’s cells, which can include DNA.
Free radicals are created within the body as a natural part of the immune process, but they can also be created through UV rays, pollution, smoke, excessive activity, unhealthy foods and so forth.
Fortunately, the body has a way to combat excessive and damaging free radicals. Within the foods we eat, there are vitamins and minerals which have antioxidant properties. With a healthy and balanced diet, the body can use a multitude of different nutrients to destroy free radicals, and protect cells from their damage.
Within cantaloupes, there are a variety of antioxidants. Vitamin C and Beta-Carotene (vitamin A) are the most famous and abundant within the cantaloupe, and can contribute to protecting the body from a number of damaging effects due to free radical activity.
Vitamin C, for instance, is an electron donor – by giving the free radical an electron, it stops it in its destructive path. Cantaloupes also contain other antioxidants, such as lutein, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin.
In terms of cancer, both vitamin C and beta-carotene are very effective at combating damage. Vitamin C is water soluble and beta-carotene is fat soluble, meaning that together they protect all areas of the body. As a bonus, cantaloupes contain more beta-carotene than nearly all other fruits and vegetables.
Cantaloupes are particularly effective in providing antioxidants to prevent melanoma (a type of skin cancer) and intestinal cancer. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the photodamage to cells caused by UV rays, and they can also protect the body from this damage before it occurs (Darr et al, 1992).
Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid; a plant-based compound which provides coloured pigment (which is why cantaloupes have that distinctive pastel-orange flesh) as well as powerful antioxidant properties. There are over 200 studies which provide evidence that beta-carotene is effective at fighting cancer.
Luetin, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin found in the cantaloupe are flavonoids, another type of plant compound which also has antioxidant properties. A review of the current evidence performed By Donato et al (2012) suggested that diets which emphasise flavonoid content may reduce the risk of breast, colon, lung, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Mechanisms by which this might take place include inhibiting proliferation, inflammation and invasion of cells by free radicals.
The leading cause of blindness in the UK is Age-Related Macular Degeneration (ARMD). It is caused by a number of different things, including age, genetic disposition, smoking, sunlight and diet. Damage caused by free radicals can also contribute. As well as having protective properties for cancer, beta-carotene also maintains the healthy mucus membrane and skin of the eye, and protects the eye from infection.
Zeaxanthin also plays a role in eye health, as it filters out harmful UV rays which can contribute to the development of ARMD. Studies have also shown that fruit in general can help with preventing ARMD, and they suggest that eating 3 portions a day can reduce the risk by 36% (Cho et al, 2004).
Infections occur when organisms such as bacteria get into the body and begin to multiply. The body is referred to as the ‘host’. Some organisms are harmless, some are even helpful, but others are damaging and cause disease. Infection occurs when the immune system is unable to fight off the organism.
Symptoms such as sweating are usually signs that the body is working hard to fight off the invader. Failure to treat an infection can in some cases lead to serious health problems. Others, the body can fight off eventually without additional help.
The high vitamin C content of the cantaloupe makes it a brilliant food for individuals suffering from an infection. Vitamins are usually catalysts for chemical reactions; in other words, they allow reactions in the body to occur with less energy and time than under normal conditions.
When these catalysts are missing, normal bodily functions can break down, and infections are more likely to occur. Vitamin C deficiency is an example of how a missing catalyst can cause problems. When this deficiency occurs, it can exacerbate the course and outcomes of an infection, so ensuring you have enough vitamin C in your diet can lead to less severe infections.
Vitamin C works best against viruses; in fact, with a high enough dose, no virus can survive vitamin C, including HIV. Vitamin C elevates the body’s interferon levels during a viral attack (Gerber et al, 1975). Interferons are proteins which are released during infection, and work by interfering with viral proliferation and multiplication. They work against most infectious organisms, but are most effective against viruses.
The best approach to fighting a virus with vitamin C is the sooner the better. Therefore, having a baseline diet which is rich in vitamin C is an excellent starting point to any virus.
Vitamin C is also effective against bacteria. As well as stimulating interferon production, it can stimulate the production of antibodies and cells in the immune system such as phagocytes and neutrophils (Kronhausen et al, 1989), which protect the body by ingesting and absorbing invading cells to destroy them.
Vitamin C may also enhance the function of leukocytes (white blood cells, including neutrophils), and decrease the activity of bacteria (Gaby and Singh, 1991).
One medium cantaloupe (552g) contains 338% of the RDA of vitamin C, so it is a brilliant food to eat to prevent infection, or treat existing infections.
Weight loss is something that many people struggle with. Some common mistakes include:
- Cutting out entire food groups (e.g. the Atkins diet). This is problematic because it means your body is craving nutrients it isn’t getting. As a result, most people who start this diet end up overeating when they have finished, or failing before they really see any difference.
- Severely reducing calorie intake quickly. This is a real problem because your body will go into ‘famine’ mode, and it will store more energy from the food you do eat as fat. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, your weight loss will slow down because of the additional fat storage. Secondly, once you stop dieting your body will remain in this ‘famine’ mode for a little while, so eating normally will lead to drastic weight-gain. This is often why many people ‘yo-yo’ between overweight and healthy when they diet.
- Skipping meals. This can be a real issue because it can make you significantly hungrier later on, and you are more likely to overeat and not lost any weight. In some cases you may actually gain weight.
One easy way to overcome these problems is to find low calorie, yet filling foods which can be eaten in a variety of ways (to keep things interesting!). The cantaloupe is an excellent example of one of these foods.
There is a very high water content in a cantaloupe, and it is also extremely nutrient dense. This means that it is good at making you feel full and providing you with large amounts of essential nutrients, whilst still being very low in calories.
It is also full of fibre, with one medium cantaloupe providing 20% of the RDA for dietary fibre. Fibre is effective for enhancing weight loss and general health in a few ways; it makes you feel full so you eat less, it helps the body to remove waste, lowering the risk of constipation, and lowers blood glucose and cholesterol levels by slowing down the emptying of the stomach.
These effects vary depending on whether the fibre is soluble and insoluble. Many foods only have one type, but the cantaloupe contains 27% soluble and 73% insoluble fibre, meaning that eating a cantaloupe will provide you with all of these benefits.
5. Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of three serious health conditions; obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Each of these individually can be dangerous, but when combined the risk of severe health problems and even death becomes significantly higher.
Being physically inactive, genetic disposition to insulin resistance and being overweight can all put you at risk for developing metabolic syndrome. This in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and other conditions which affect the blood vessels.
Diet is one of the ways that you can lower the risk of metabolic syndrome. Research by Esmailzadeh et al (2006) found that women who ate the most fruit had a 34% lower chance of developing metabolic syndrome. Fruits involved in the study included apples, watermelons, grapes, bananas and cantaloupes.
Participants who ate the most fruit also showed the healthiest levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is an indicator of inflammation, and it is likely that the anti-inflammatory properties found in the nutrients in cantaloupes and the other fruits consumed contributed both to lower CRP makers, and lower risk of metabolic syndrome.
This is because inflammation is associated with all three conditions which make up metabolic syndrome. The researchers suggested that long-term consumption has a much better effect than short term consumption, and so if you are at risk for developing metabolic syndrome is it important that dietary changes are made and maintained.
Asthma is an inflammatory condition exacerbated by allergies, and symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. These symptoms are caused by a narrowing of the airways due to mucus build up. Severe asthma attacks can lead to asphyxiation and death if not treated, and as such it is a very serious condition.
Free radicals may be responsible for the mucus build up and tightening of the airways in asthma. As such, foods containing antioxidant properties may help to alleviate asthmatic symptoms. Vitamin C, found abundantly in the cantaloupe, has been shown to provide a 5x reduction in reactions to pollutants in the air which can lead to asthma attacks (Baker and Ayres, 2000). Vitamin C can also improve the general function of the lungs to combat asthmatic symptoms.
As asthma can be triggered by an allergic reaction, reducing the production of histamine can also be beneficial. Histamine is a chemical in the body which causes the symptoms associated with allergies, and its effects include inflammation and constriction of smooth muscle, including that in the airway in the lungs.
Both of these effects can contribute to asthmatic symptoms. Vitamin C is excellent at breaking down histamine in order to reduce these effects, which in turn will improve symptoms.
7. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a very common problem in the UK and is defined by two measures; systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure refers to the pressure when the heart is pumping blood, and diastolic is the pressure in the time between beats.
People more at risk for high blood pressure are those who are overweight, smoke, have a family history of high blood pressure, don’t do enough exercise, drink too much coffee, drink too much alcohol, and are over the age of 65.
There are simple (although not necessarily easy) ways to prevent and treat high blood pressure, one of which is changing your diet. Eating potassium-rich foods will be very beneficial for reducing blood pressure, because potassium reduces the sodium content of the blood.
High sodium content leads to greater water retention, which in turn causes high blood pressure by increasing blood volume and putting pressure on arteries. Therefore, eating foods low in sodium and high in potassium can help to restore this balance.
One serving of cantaloupe melon contains 10% of the RDA for potassium, meaning that it would be quite easy to get your RDA by adding melon into your diet.
Inflammation is the basis for a variety of health problems, including arthritis, allergies, congestive heart failure, heart attack, multiple sclerosis and kidney failure. It is a natural part of the immune response, but it can get out of control due to our lifestyles – pollution, poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking, for instance, can all contribute to the production of free radicals which exacerbate the inflammatory process.
Many antioxidants can be found in the cantaloupe which can fight off these free radicals. Additionally, cantaloupes contain anti-inflammatory substances called phytonutrients. The term phytonutrient is an umbrella term for all carotenoids (including beta-carotene), flavonoids, polyphenols, indoles, lignans and isoflavones.
They are naturally occurring plant compounds responsible for their sensory properties; colour, smell, taste and so forth. They also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. For instance, they are very good at reducing the level of CRP in the blood. As mentioned earlier, CRP is a biomarker of inflammation. Phytonutrients found in cantaloupes include terpenes, beta-carotene, lutein and cryptoxiathin.
9. Skin and Hair Problems
Cantaloupes contain a variety of nutrients which all play a role in maintaining healthy skin and hair. Vitamin A encourages skin regeneration whilst vitamin C helps in the creation of collagen. Collagen is important for healthy skin because it is a protein which provides structure to soft tissues in the body, helps skin to remain plump and firm, and is also necessary for wound healing.
Vitamin C also combats the damage caused by free radicals; an example of this is ageing. This is why smoking, for instance, can lead to older looking skin. Cantaloupes also contain folic acid which is excellent for cell regeneration. Vitamin B found in cantaloupes can reduce hair loss and stimulate new growth, so is excellent for people with thinning or damaged hair.
Finally, due to the high content of water in a cantaloupe, it is really good for hydration. This is always beneficial to have healthy skin and hair
Stress is a chronic problem in today’s society. Many people have to take time off work to combat it, and it can lead to both physical and mental health problems which are very hard to treat. Prolonged periods of stress deplete levels of vitamin C in the adrenal glands. Vitamin C is very good for stress because it reduces both physical and psychological effects.
Studies have shown that people who have high levels of vitamin C in their system do not respond with anxiety to as great an extent as those with low levels, and they also ‘bounce back’ from stressful events more quickly. One of the ways it might do this is that it can abolish cortisol (the stress hormone which triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response to fearful stimuli) which has developed over a period of chronic stress.
As previously stated, the cantaloupe has a really high amount of vitamin C, so it is an excellent addition to the diet of anybody who may be prone to stress and anxiety.
11. Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps will likely affect everybody at some point in their lives. These sudden, excruciating bursts of tension can occur as a result of too much strain, dehydration, lactic acid build-up and so on. Occasionally however, muscles can cramp for no apparent reason.
The answer is that muscles require adequate amounts of calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium in order to function effectively, and deficiencies in these can cause cramping. Cantaloupes contain all of these nutrients, and as such are an excellent addition to the diet of cramp sufferers.
Some Things to Be Aware of
Most cantaloupes shouldn’t cause a problem, but they can harbour a significant amount of pesticide depending on where they have been purchased. As a rule, it is helpful to make sure you wash the outside of the melon before cutting into it, to ensure that none of the harmful bacteria from the pesticides contaminate the flesh.
Allergies to cantaloupes are uncommon, but they do exist. People who are allergic to grasses, ragweed, oranges, peanuts, tomatoes, white potatoes or other types of melon are also at risk for being allergic to cantaloupes. If unsure, check with your GP before consuming any cantaloupe.