Antioxidants…we always hear about them, but what are they exactly and why do we need them? Let’s find out more about the benefits of an antioxidant-rich (and colorful!) diet.
BY: KIM DENKHAUS, MS, RD
WHAT ARE ANTIOXIDANTS?
Oxidative stress through an unbalanced diet, food additives, environmental contaminants, and pollution creates a daily formation of free radicals in the human body. Free radicals are highly reactive, unstable oxygen molecules that try to steal electrons from other molecules, which can cause damage to the cells’ DNA. In order to neutralize or combat free radical damage, the body produces antioxidants, which act as the stable molecule that neutralizes free radicals to counteract cellular damage.
WHERE DO WE GET THEM FROM?
While the body produces some antioxidants naturally, it relies on dietary sources (primarily fruits and vegetables) to deliver a healthy dose of antioxidant defense. Diet and lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on cellular damage. Evidence suggests that antioxidant compounds found abundantly in fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains play an important role in the prevention of degenerative diseases.
Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, as well as a rich source of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, are responsible for the flavor, odor, and concentrated color pigments in the skins of many fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, blueberries, spinach, raspberries and tomatoes. Plants produce phytonutrients naturally to defend and protect themselves. Although these nutrients are non-essential for humans, research suggests that these phytonutrients may provide numerous human health benefits. For example:
- Phytonutrients act as antioxidants, and antioxidant activity protects cells against oxidative damage by stimulating the immune system and preventing disease.
- Certain phytonutrients may prevent the development of carcinogens and suppress the formation of certain types of tumor development.
- Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, arugula, kale, and Brussels sprouts, are potent cancer fighters containing glucosinolates, a natural sulfur component and antioxidant responsible for their pungent aroma and bitter taste.
ARE WE GETTING ENOUGH?
The protective effect of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans contributes to an individual’s antioxidant defense leading to improved health. A plant-based diet has been linked to a reduced risk of major chronic degenerative diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cataracts. However, studies show that many individuals do not consume the recommended daily amount of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables to contest free radical formation. The 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a serving of 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits per day based on a 2000 calorie diet. To ensure a healthy supply of antioxidants, try to “eat the rainbow!” Consuming a diet rich in a wide variety of colorful plant foods will provide an optimal intake of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients. Visit a local farmer’s market, or grow your own garden! Picking fresh whole foods that are minimally processed will have a positive impact on your long-term health and overall well-being.
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Kim Denkhaus, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with her private practice based in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In a modern-day society focused on convenience and fast-paced lifestyles, Kim is on a mission to help people reconnect with food in a sustainable, healthier way that will help them appreciate where their food comes from and empower them to use use whole foods to fuel and nourish their bodies.