Antioxidants are substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Cell membranes and other structures in the human body (such as DNA, lipids and cellular proteins) are damaged by oxidation.
When oxygen is metabolized, it creates 'free radicals` which will use electrons from other molecules and may damage them; however, our bodies do need some free radicals to function effectively. It's when our bodies have an excessive amount of free radicals that leads to disease. These diseases include but are not limited to cancers, heart disease, and liver disease. The process of oxidation in the body can also be increased by other influential factors such as smoking, pollution, sunlight, and use of alcoholic beverages.
How can we help keep our body healthy and help prevent oxidation of our cells? Antioxidants are the answer and they are found naturally in the foods we eat. They help neutralize free radicals. Good examples of antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamins (A, C, and E), and minerals (copper, zinc and selenium). The photochemicals in plants and the zoochemicals from animal products are believed to have greater antioxidant effects than either vitamins or minerals. These are called the non-nutrient antioxidants and include phytochemicals, such as the beta-carotene in carrots, lycopenes in tomatoes, and anthocyanins found in cranberries.
While effects of antioxidants are being carefully examined in laboratories using cell cultures and animal studies, there are indications that antioxidants may slow down the process or even help prevent the development of some cancers. The studies indicated that men who eat an abundance of tomatoes were less likely to develop prostrate cancer, due to lycopene. Eye lens degeneration had a lower incidence of occurrence in the elderly people who ate spinach and corn, due to luetin. In Japan, they have lower rates of heart disease due to the flavonoids found in the green tea that they readily consume.
While fighting cancer and heart disease are very important, there may be other damage caused by free radicals such as premature aging, damage to the brain and nerve cells which may lead to Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease, and the inflammation of the joints causing arthritis.
To increase our consumption of foods containing antioxidants is a way to live a healthier life. But which foods should we choose to help us to maximize our intake of natural antioxidants? Antioxidants are plentiful in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods including nuts, grains, some meats, poultry and fish.
The following list of foods are a common source of antioxidants.
Allium sulphur compounds are found in onions, garlic, and leeks.
Anthocyanins are found in eggplant, grapes and berries.
Beta-carotene is found in many foods that are orange in color, including apricots, carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, and mangos, as well as in the dark green vegetables including collards, kale, and spinach.
Catechins are in red wine and tea.
Copper can be found in lean meat, seafood, milk and nuts.
Cryptoxanthins are found in pumpkin and mangos.
Flavonoids come to us from apples, citrus fruits, onion tea, green tea and red wine.
Indoles produced by vegetables in the cabbage family such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
Lignans come from sesame seeds, bran, whole grains and vegetables.
Lutein, best known for its association with healthy eyes, is abundant in green, leafy vegetables such as collards, spinach, and kale.
Lycopene is a potent antioxidant found in apricots, guava, tomatoes, papaya, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and blood oranges. Estimates suggest 85% of the American dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato products.
Vitamin A is commonly found in foods such as sweet potatoes, liver, milk, carrots, mozzarella cheese, and egg yolks.
Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, and can found in high amounts in many foods such as oranges, blueberries, strawberries, grapefruit, kiwi, blackcurrants, mangos, broccoli, and spinach.
Vitamin E, also known as alpha-tocopherol, is found in various oils such as wheatgerm, corn, safflower, and soybean, as well as found in mangos, broccoli, and whole grains.
Zinc can be found in lean meats, seafoods, milk, and nuts.
Research indicates that antioxidants are less effective when they are isolated from natural foods and taken in pill or tablet form. A study examining the effects of vitamin E found that it didn`t offer the same benefits when taken as a supplement.
It is highly recommended that you eat a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats ,and dairy products every day. The diet should include five daily servings of fruit and vegetables. One serving is a medium-sized piece of fruit or a half-cup of cooked vegetables. Fruits and vegetables provide more vitamins when they are eaten uncooked.
For advice best suited to your own personal needs see your dietitian or your physician.
For more ideas on healthy living read these articles.
Changing your eating habits
Choosing a doctor
Cut down on sodium
Lowering your cholesterol