Green tomatoes and strong muscles

Reach a certain age, and you're bound to lose a little muscle.

But millions of seniors lose more than just a little. They lose so much they're practically wasting away -- and all that missing muscle can do more than just make it harder to open a jar of sauce.

Weak muscles lead to poor balance, and poor balance could lead to a fall and a debilitating, crippling or even deadly injury.

That's why it's critical to protect the muscle you have, and that doesn't mean pumping iron in the gym or running laps around the local racetrack.

No, exercise can help, but nutrition is just as important -- and new research identifies one key nutrient that just might have the power to slow, stop and even reverse muscle wasting.

This key compound could even help your body to grow new muscle without exercise.

And you'll find it in the most unlikely of places: green tomatoes.

Tomatoes -- especially green tomatoes -- contain a compound called alpha-tomatine. When you eat the tomatoes, your body converts the alpha-tomatine into another compound, called tomatidine.

And the new study finds that tomatidine can actually reverse the genetic process that leads to muscle atrophy.

In tests on cultured human muscle cells, tomatidine stimulated the growth of new muscle. In a second set of tests, mice given the compound saw their muscles grow and enjoyed everything that comes with it: they were stronger and able to exercise longer.

And in mice suffering from muscle atrophy, tomatidine was able to treat the condition, according to the study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

What's especially remarkable here is that while the mice gained muscle, they didn't gain weight -- a sign they must've burned fat, too, which means this tomato compound could also be a powerful tool in the fight against obesity.

Of course, not many people outside of the Deep South eat green tomatoes (and when they do, they fry 'em -- which isn't exactly healthy).

But you don't have to eat green tomatoes to protect your muscle.

Researchers are working on a way to deliver tomatidine in supplement form. And while you wait, there's something else you can do: eat more apples.

The ursolic acid found in apple peels has been shown to have a similar effect -- just one more way an apple or two a day really can help keep the doctor away.