We all know that oxygen is important for our bodies. But when cells are exposed to oxygen, it causes oxidation, which is not so good. In oxidation, our bodies’ chemicals are altered and some become what are called ‘free radicals.’ Free radicals are also caused by environmental factors, like the sun, cigarette smoke, alcohol and pollution.
Over time, free radicals can cause a chain reaction in your body that damages important body chemicals, DNA and parts of our cells. Some cells are permanently damaged. Others can heal. Scientists believe that free radicals contribute to the aging process as well as diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Antioxidants stabilize free radicals and may stop or limit the damage they cause. Antioxidants can protect and even reverse damage caused by oxidation.
Antioxidant-rich foods are high in the following nutrients:
- Vitamin A – milk, liver, butter and eggs
- Vitamin C – most fruits and vegetables, but especially papaya, strawberries, oranges, cantaloupe, kiwi, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, mango, nectarine, snow peas, sweet potato and kale
- Vitamin E – nuts and seeds: almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts and peanuts. Also avocado and green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale, and oils, including soybean, sunflower, corn and canola.
- Beta-carotene – colorful fruits and vegetables: carrots, peas, cantaloupe, apricots, asparagus, corn, green peppers, turnip, papaya, mangoes, peaches, pumpkin, apricots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, nectarines, pink grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon. And some leafy green vegetables, including beet greens, spinach and kale.
- Lutein – also found in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, collards and kale, and broccoli, corn, peas, papaya and oranges.
- Lycopene – pink and red fruits and vegetables, such as grapefruit, watermelon, apricots and tomatoes.
- Selenium – cereals (corn, wheat and rice), nuts, legumes, animal products (beef, fish, turkey, chicken, eggs and cheese), bread and pasta
- Zinc – oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, some fortified cereals and dairy products
Other foods rich in antioxidants are:
To get the biggest benefits of antioxidants, eat these fruits and vegetables raw or lightly steamed. Don’t overcook or boil them.
Many people take vitamin and mineral supplements, but the best way to get antioxidants is by eating a healthy diet with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds and nuts. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends against taking vitamin E or beta-carotene supplements for the prevention of cancer, especially if you smoke or are at high risk of lung cancer. Studies strongly suggest that it can increase the risk of lung cancer.
So, if you take a multi-vitamin supplement, be careful. Too much of some nutrients from supplements – rather than food – can be harmful, including vitamins E , A and selenium, It’s always best to consult your doctor before taking vitamin supplements.
Spices can also provide antioxidants.
So, it turns out that your mother was right: Eat your vegetables! To get the best variety, eat the rainbow every day. With so many good foods on the list, it’s easy peasy – A fruit smoothie for breakfast (don’t forget to add some protein), a salad for lunch with lots of veggies (and some protein) and lean meat/poultry/seafood for dinner with whole grain or fortified bread or pasta and another vegetable. For snacking, try some nuts or seeds from the list. And don’t forget to drink your tea: Green tea is a good source of antioxidants!