Everywhere you go, it seems people are buzzing about antioxidants. As you probably know, studies show they do help prevent cancer. However, do you know exactly what antioxidants are, how they function and in what foods you can find them?
Antioxidants Help Prevent Formation of Free Radicals
First, let's look at the process of oxidation, which transfers electrons or hydrogen atoms to other cells in the body. At times, this oxidation reaction can produce what's known as free radicals; they create chain reactions and release toxins that damage or cause death to other cells. Over time, these toxins can lead to chronic disease.
As their name suggests, antioxidants terminate the chain reaction by being oxidized themselves, thereby eliminating toxic free radical intermediates and keeping us healthier. They come in many forms and can be found in fruits and vegetables that are rich in color, such as dark green, orange, red and purple. That's why many nutrition experts call antioxidants the "super naturals."
As I mentioned earlier, research indicates that increased intake of antioxidants may reduce risk of cancer, as well as heart disease and memory loss. However, it’s important to eat foods in their whole, natural form because it is still unclear if antioxidants are easily absorbed from supplements.
Antioxidants as Phytochemicals, Vitamins and Minerals
Second, let's take a look at some of the key forms of antioxidants.
Phytochemicals. This term comes from the greek word “phyto,” meaning plants. Phytochemicals provide a plant with color, odor and flavor. Once eaten, they influence chemical properties inside the body in helpful ways, including:
- Immune system stimulation
- Inflammation reduction, which makes chronic disease less likely
- DNA damage prevention
- Hormone regulation
- Slowing of tumor growth
Carotenoids or rich yellow, orange and dark green plants are rich in phytochemicals, so load up on your sweet potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash and broccoli this fall season! Polyphenols found in grapes, citrus fruits and green tea are also part of the phytochemical family.
Vitamins. Vitamin C and vitamin E naturally act as antioxidants in the body. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, papaya, strawberries, kiwi, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. Aim for 70-95 mg per day of Vitamin C. Adult males should consume about 95 mg per day in order to meet needs.
Vitamin E is found in nuts, apricots, broccoli, butternut squash and spinach. Men, as well as women who are not pregnant, should aim for 15 mg of vitamin E daily. So, throw some heart-healthy walnuts on your sweet potato this fall for doses of both vitamin C and E!
Minerals. Selenium and zinc are two minerals that act as natural antioxidants in the body. Selenium is found in button mushrooms, cod, shrimp and brazil nuts; zinc is in animal products such as yogurt, beef and turkey. Aim for 8-11 mg of zinc and 55 mg of selenium for men, as well as women who are not pregnant.
Put Antioxidants on Your Holiday Dinner Table
Luckily, with the wide range of winter squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin filling produce shelves in the grocery store this fall, you can easily incorporate powerful antioxidants into your diet.
One of my favorite recipes is for Orange Nut Sweet Potatoes. It's quick, healthy, affordable and the perfect autumn blend of vitamins C and E and polyphenols. Click on the recipe and put it on your Thanksgiving table this year. Enjoy!
If you live in Canton, Massillon or elsewhere in Stark County and need nutrition counseling, Mercy Weight Management can help. Our registered dietitians can help you create a nutrition plan that's right for you. Learn more about our Mercy Outpatient Nutrition Services.