What is an anti-oxidant?
Everyone is always talking about the wonderful benefits of antioxidants but no one ever explains exactly what they are.
An antioxidant is a molecule which donates an electron to stop the damaging effects of a free radical. Free radicals contain an odd number of electrons and are created when certain molecules interact with oxygen. Free radicals are hazardous because of their ability to react with (and damage) cellular components, like DNA or cell membrane, in search of electrons so they can become stable.
Some free radicals are produced during metabolism; however free radical damage can be accelerated by smoking, stress, environmental pollutants, over-exercising, eating oils which have been damaged by heat, and drinking alcohol.
When the antioxidants donate their electrons to neutralize the free radicals, they themselves become oxidized, which is why we need to constantly replenish our supply of antioxidants from our diet. The body produces some of its own antioxidants; however with the increase in free radicals from our environment and lifestyle, the 4000 odd antioxidant compounds found in food are essential to good health.
Antioxidant strength is measured in Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) units. ORAC measures how many oxygen radicals (free radicals) a specific food can neutralize. The more free radicals a food can neutralize, the higher its ORAC score.
Top Five Antioxidant Foods
Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries contain a powerful group of antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, which may play a role in preventing cancer and heart disease. They have anti-inflammatory properties, help to regulate blood sugar, help to maintain the elasticity in collagen and protect the blood vessels. Berries also contain an anti-cancer compound called ellagic acid.
Berries can be eaten alone, with some nuts or seeds or added to plain greek yogurt with cinnamon and raw honey.
Broccoli is another food which my help to prevent cancer and heart disease. It contains an antioxidant called indole-3-carbinol, which works by breaking down estrogen, therefore reducing the risk of breast, ovarian and cervical cancers. Broccoli also contains Vitamins C which is an antioxidant that protects us from the constant ‘attacks’ of infection, toxins and pollutants. 1 cup of steamed broccoli provides 500mg of Vitamin C.
3. 80% Dark Chocolate
Aptly named “food of the Gods”, dark chocolate contains many potent antioxidant compounds, such as polyphenols, catechins, proanthocyanidins and bioflavonoids. These antioxidants protect the heart and brain, improve immune function, reduce inflammation in blood vessels and fight cancer.
The darker the chocolate, the greater the antioxidant content, so look for high quality chocolates with main ingredients of cocoa butter and cocoa solids.
4. Wild Salmon
Wild salmon is an excellent source of the antioxidant astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is the pigment that gives salmon its pink colour and research has shown that is has wonderful health benefits too. It has been found to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation and heart disease. It seems to be the best option when it comes to protecting your DN from free radical damage since it’s 6,000 times more effective than Vitamin C, 800 times more than CoQ10 and 550 times more than vitamin E. It has also been shown to protect against liver, colon & breast cancers.
Wild salmon seems to be the best source of this compound, with a 100g serving providing 4.5 grams of astaxanthin.
Eating sweet potatoes instead of regular white potatoes may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Not only are sweet potatoes better for your blood sugar by releasing carbohydrates slowly in the blood, but their bright orange colour is also a source of carotenoids. Beta-carotene converts to Vitamin A which is essential for vision, protects the skin from sun damage and reduce the chances of getting emphysema from smoking or second-hand smoke. Sweet Potatoes are also a good source of Vitamin C.
Why should you include them in your diet?
Antioxidants not only reduce the oxidation process by neutralizing the free radicals, they also improve immune function, reduce inflammation and lower your risk of infection and cancer. One study found that a combination of antioxidants beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and the mineral zinc reduced the risk of developing advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration. The antioxidant lutein is also useful for neutralizing free radicals in the retina of the eye, decreasing macular degeneration and loss of sight in the elderly.
For athletes, daily antioxidant consumption greatly improves performance and decreases exercise related stress.
Antioxidants protect the skin by guarding the cells from damage and also promote cell and tissue growth. Vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium are especially helpful here and their effects may help to slow signs of ageing on the skin.
Antioxidants help to prevent cholesterol from being oxidized. Oxidized cholesterol attaches to the walls of the blood vessels where the immune system senses a threat and mounts a white cell reaction. The white blood cells turn the oxidized cholesterol into plaques which line the artery walls and narrow them. Plaques can break off and block arteries, causing heart attacks or strokes.
The best way to get a good variety of antioxidants in the diet is to eat 5-7 daily servings of foods which are brightly coloured.