If you have paid any attention to the food industry, nutrition news, health, the latest food trends on yahoo or google news, or retail marketing in the past 10 plus years than you have probably heard the word “antioxidant” being used. You can find antioxidant rich this and that advertised everywhere it seems these days. So what does that mean and how does it or can it affect you??
Let’s start by explaining what the word actually means…we have two main parts to the word…”anti” and “oxi”. We might interpret that as “against oxygen” but let’s look deeper. There is a big distinction between the words oxygenation and oxidation. Oxygen is important and oxygenation is an increase in oxygen to a particular area or tissue and that is a very good thing! Oxidation is when oxygen combines with another substance to break something down…think rust…when oxygen combines with iron you get rust…this we do not want.
So when you think “antioxidant” think “anti-oxidation” or anti – breakdown. And since breakdown is exactly what we do not want more of in our bodies, than antioxidants are a very good thing. Antioxidants are compounds that help us fight against damage from oxidation. Our bodies are constantly reacting with oxygen as we breathe and as our cells create energy. “But this process along with poor quality foods and pollution can create an abundance of highly reactive molecules in our system called free radicals.” Before we talk more on antioxidants and where to find them…let’s get into free radicals…..
If antioxidants are the good guys than free radicals are the bad guys. “Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are missing electrons. Free radicals bounce around looking to replace the missing electrons and cause our cells oxidative damage. They can damage proteins, cell membranes and even genes. Oxidative damage has been implicated in the cause of many diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s and is also said to accelerate the aging process. This is where antioxidants come in handy. They are rich in electrons and neutralize free radicals, stopping their oxidative damage in its tracks.”
Free radicals are a natural by-product of various cell activities, (and are used by the body in certain functions in a controlled environment) but can also be created through exposure to tobacco smoke, chemicals, UV radiation, other environmental factors and can come from poor quality, processed foods as well. And living in this day and age we have greatly disrupted this balance of just enough free radicals to an absolute overload of free radicals in and around us. Even the “healthiest” of folks need to take heed.
Here’s a quick 2 minute video of how free radicals and antioxidants work in the body….
Sources of Free Radicals and What to Avoid:
The major sources of dietary free radicals are chemically-altered fats from commercial vegetable oils, vegetable shortening and all oils heated to very high temperatures. If you are still using “foods” like refined vegetable oils, margarine or shortening (or “foods” made with them such as all commercial baked goods and “snack” chips), you need to remove them from your diet. Replace these harmful fats with natural, cold pressed oils such as olive oil (which can be used for cooking) and small amounts of flax oil or walnut oil (which should never be heated). Food grade, unrefined coconut oil and organic butter are also excellent choices, especially for cooking.
Excessive sugar intake can also contribute to free radical damage. White and brown sugars, and even sugar from so-called natural sources, such as fruit and fruit juices, maple syrup and honey, get converted into triglycerides by the liver and are subject to free radical damage. These damaged fats then promptly attack your arteries and directly contribute to cardiovascular disease. “Cancer and tumor cells feed off of sugar. It is for this reason that excessive sugar intake correlates very strongly with heart disease, cancer and a host of other ailments.”
Free radicals are also released in the body from the detoxification of drugs (legal or illegal), artificial food colorings and flavorings, smog, preservatives in processed foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, chlorinated drinking water, pesticides, radiation, cleaning fluids, heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and assorted chemicals.
Even psychological and emotional stress can cause contribute to free radical damage. “When the body is under stress, it produces certain hormones that generate free radicals. Moreover, the liver must eventually detoxify them and that process also generates free radicals.”
Ahhhh! The Bad Guys are Everywhere!!
So uh, yeah they are kinda all around us even as we try to avoid them. So, now how to we counteract these crazed “free wheeling radicals” from taking over our lives??!! What’s that saying…”an ounce prevention…blah, blah”. That is where antioxidants come into play! For every truly bad guy, there is a super hero lurking nearby…
BENEFITS OF ANTIOXIDANTS
- Reduces the risk of heart disease, blood pressure and stroke
- Prevents degeneration of tissues and so,risk of cancer is reduced
- Delays aging process
- Arrests degeneration of brain
- Reduces harmful damage to skin due to exposure to sun
- Enhances immunity against infections
Where to Find Antioxidants:
The main antioxidants are certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin E and C, betacarotene, and other carotenoids, glutathione, bioflavonoids, selenium, zinc, CoQ10 (ubiquinone), and various phyto-chemicals from herbs and foods.
There is a wide variety of foods that are flooded with antioxidants, so all of us can find something or two we like and they come in all different flavors, textures and colors. You may notice that many antioxidant rich foods are very colorful. That is because in most cases, the color IS the antioxidant. For example the bright orange of carrots and goji berries is from the antioxidant compound called beta-carotene. “So whether you’re a chocoholic, a berry lover, or a green food fan, you’ll be able to find your favorite source of antioxidants.”
Antioxidants can be broken into two general categories: antioxidant nutrients (including phytonutrients) and antioxidant enzymes. Vitamins, minerals and the various -noids, like carotenoids (colorful veggies and leafy greens) and flavonoids are considered antioxidant nutrients while antioxidant enzymes include superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).
To get a good mix of all of the above eat the following antioxidant rich foods….(there are alot, here are just a few)
- Berries: blueberries (esp wild), elderberries, acai, goji, chokeberries, cranberries, black currants, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
- Plums and prunes
- Cacao (super high!)
- Red and orange peppers
- Cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus
- Beets, carrots, sweet potatoes
- Small red beans and red kidney beans
- Red grapes and Red wine
- Green Tea and Yerba Mate
- Selenium activates certain antioxidant enzymes so be sure to eat plenty high quality, selenium rich and ideally organic eggs, chicken and fresh garlic, brazil nuts and walnuts
Many popular herbs are a great source of natural antioxidants as well. Although we might have to eat more herbs to get the equivalent total amount of antioxidants consumed in fruits and vegetables, supplementing an otherwise balanced diet with herbs may be beneficial to our health.
Some of your favorite herbs and spices might be on this list… clove, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, mustard seed,ginger, pepper, chili powder, paprika, garlic, coriander, onion and cardamom, as well assage, thyme, margoram, tarragon, peppermint, savory, basil and dill weed.
Take Home Message:
The more antioxidants you get, the better and as mama says…eat your fruits and veggies and a wide variety of colorful ones at that. Reduce stress, get plenty of sleep, be happy and and don’t forget to add herbs and spices to your dishes!!
Weston A. Price Foundation