Nutrition - Antioxidants

Friday 04 May 2018

Antioxidants is a word that gets banded around and we are told that they are good for us and to include them in our diets. I was wondering though, do we all really understand what an antioxidant is , where they come from and why they are so important?

I am a strong believer that if people understand the reasons why they are told what they are told they can follow guidelines in an educated way and have a free choice whether to follow them or not .....but with knowledge.
I think this must be the teacher in me, values coming back from my previous career!!!!  Anyway I hope that you agree and find this blog interesting and of benefit.

What is an antioxidant?
We need to work backwards here to come to the answer to this question. Oxygen as we know is the basis for all plant and animal life. It is needed by every cell of our bodies every second of every day. Without oxygen we cannot release energy from the food that we eat.

This is all very natural and essential BUT oxygen is also chemically very reactive and in some circumstances can become unstable and capable of causing damage to the cells. This is known as ‘free oxidising radicals’ or more commonly known as simply free radicals. Here again, a term that you may be familiar with because again it is used frequently but perhaps without a full understanding.

Antioxidants as the word implies disarm these free radicals and prevents them from causing damage. We get lots of these antioxidants from our food as we shall see later and we make some ourselves in the body as a natural defence.

So what changes a beneficial oxygen, essential to life, to a damaging one or as we now know as ‘free radical’. These free radicals are constantly being formed in our bodies as a result of normal metabolism and as I have explained we make our own anti oxidants to deal with these. It is when the number of free radicals becomes overwhelming that our bodies may have a problem coping, then damage to the cells and disease can develop as a result. Things like premature aging (wrinkles), cataracts, heart disease and cancer to name a few of the problems that can arise.

So where do these free radicals come from?
Free radicals are formed as a result of normal metabolism as I have explained but the number can increase rapidly as a result of smoking, the process of frying or BBQing, radiation, over exercise, eating processed fats (hydrogenated or trans fats), during times of stress, and over exposure to sunlight.  

I think the biggest problem is perhaps the misuse of fats and the ever abundant supply of processed foods that could, if we let them easily make up the bulk of our diets. They are easy to use and so convenient their overuse can be understandable. Stress of course, is hard to avoid.

Why are antioxidants so important?
This has been answered to a degree. Antioxidants are important because they help protect us from the free radicals that damage our cells. Foods that contain antioxidants are also abundant in other nutrients that do us good like vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (more on those next week).

So finally where do they come from?
If we look at antioxidants as nutrients they are namely vitamins A, C and E, selenium and zinc. Their functions are supported by Co enzyme Q10 (we produce ourselves), Glutathione (again we make this ourselves) and anthocyanins (found in berry fruits mostly). They all work synergistically.

This is getting all very technical so let’s look at this in practical terms.
Most antioxidants come from eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs. I have sung their praises many many times for lots and lots of reasons and this is yet another one. They are rich in antioxidants.

Remember the more colourful your selection of fruits and vegetables the better. The government recommends 5 portions a day for good health well I would go more for 8-10 portions a day simply because of their huge health benefits. Do not worry too much if you do not hit this target everyday but aim high as often as you can.

Try to include some seeds and unsalted nuts or their oils in the diet to complete the package. Seed and nut oils that are cold pressed make lovely salad dressings.

Out of interest when researching this topic I found this list of the top 15 most antioxidant rich foods. Some are quite surprising. I thought I would share this as I am sure that you will be interested.

Top 15 most antioxidant rich foods (They are in descending order).

Prunes; Raisins; blueberries; blackberries; Kale; strawberries; raw spinach; raspberries; tender stem (not sure what this is!) ; plums; alfalfa sprouts; spinach steamed; broccoli; beets; and finally avocado.

This is not for you to get hung up on because all fruits and vegetables are good but perhaps to include some of these regularly might be a good idea.

I am going to look more closely at phytonutrients sometimes referred to as phytochemicals  next week which is a natural extension of this blog

Blog originally written by Caroline August 2012

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