Are carrots good for you? We find out. Shown: Several carrots.

Like the majority of other vegetables, carrots are low in calories and packed with nutrients. But carrot confusion abounds among health-conscious consumers. Some popular low-carb diet plans suggest avoiding carrots because of their sugar content. On the other hand, carrots also have a reputation for improving eyesight, skin, and heart health. As it turns out, these festively colored root veggies have some misunderstood nutritional elements—what’s the real deal?

The Sugar Issue

It’s true that as vegetables go, carrots are on the sweeter side, and those natural sugars put them on the avoid or limit lists of some weight loss plans. These include programs that are based on the glycemic index—a measure of how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood glucose (sugar) levels—and very low-carb diets, such as the keto (ketogenic) diet.

A cup of sliced cooked carrots has 5 grams of sugars and 12 grams of total carbohydrates compared to, say, 2 grams of sugars and 11 grams of total carbohydrates in a cup of cooked chopped broccoli. “With numbers that low, it’s difficult to classify carrots as either a high-carbohydrate or a high-sugars food,” says Consumer Reports’ nutritionist Maxine Siegel, R.D. “Plus the health benefits definitely outweigh any concerns about carbs.”

One of those benefits? Five grams of fiber, about 25 percent of your daily need for that nutrient. Fiber—which is overall a boon to your digestive health—significantly slows the release of sugars into your system. This means you won’t get a sudden sugar spike, which may indirectly lead to weight gain.

Orange Power

Much of carrots' nutritional value comes from the carotenoids they contain. These plant pigments are responsible for the orange and yellow colors in fruits and vegetables. They are found in thousands of plants but are highly concentrated in carrots.  

Many carotenoids are converted into vitamin A in the human body, and 1 cup of cooked carrots contains enough to supply five times the amount you should get in a day. Vitamin A is needed for healthy eyes and vision, but to say carrots improve eyesight isn’t exactly right. Though vitamin A is good for your eyes, it isn’t going to correct nearsightedness or poor night vision.

However, carotenoids do act as powerful antioxidants, strengthening the body’s ability to repair cell damage. Studies suggest that they may reduce the risk of developing some types of cancer, tame the kind of inflammation in the body that can lead to disease, and boost the immune system.   

Carrots have been shown to be particularly beneficial when it comes to heart health. “We know carrots can reduce cholesterol, they help lower blood pressure, and some research has shown they can help prevent stroke,” says Dr. Martha Gulati, M.D., director of the cardiology department at University of Arizona, Phoenix. “I am always trying to get my patients to eat more carrots."

And there is research showing that fruits and veggies rich in carotenoids can improve complexion and overall appearance by giving skin a healthy glow. In a trio of studies reviewed by The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014, the majority of respondents who were shown pairs of faces—half pigmented by carotenoids, half by natural melanin pigmentation—preferred the carotenoid-tinted faces in terms of attractiveness.

Be careful, though: Overdoing it on carrots—or other foods high in carotenoids—can actually turn your skin yellow or orange, a condition called carotenosis. (Fortunately, the “cure” is to cut back on orange and yellow produce.)

Cook Them Up

To maximize these benefits, consider getting some of your carrot intake in cooked form. Your body has an easier time absorbing the carotenoids in carrots if you eat them cooked rather than raw. Cooking breaks down the vegetable’s cell walls, making its nutrients more available.   

Of course, how you cook them matters—boiling vegetables can leach out nutrients, so it’s better to steam, sauté, or roast. If you still prefer boiling your carrots, throw them in the water whole—you’ll keep the most nutrients. And eating cooked (or raw) carrots with a little fat, such as olive oil or hummus, further enhances carotenoid absorption.

Don’t Forget the Greens

In the interest of reducing food waste, consider incorporating carrots’ leafy green tops into your meal. Carrot tops have long been plagued with rumors that they may be poisonous, but in fact they are both edible and nutritious.

Carrot tops contain significantly higher levels of vitamin C than the root, as well as additional potassium, calcium, and protein. Though they can be a little bitter if consumed raw, sautéing the greens in a little olive oil and salt will soften any harsh flavor.