Antioxidants are substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Free radical damage may lead to many diseases including cancer. Antioxidants interact with and stabilize free radicals and may prevent some of the damage free radicals otherwise might cause. Examples of antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene, selenium, zinc, vitamins C, E, and A.
Why are they important?
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals as the natural by-product of normal cell processes. Free radicals are molecules with incomplete electron shells which make them more chemically reactive than those
with complete electron shells. Exposure to various environmental factors, including tobacco smoke and radiation, can also lead to free radical formation. In humans, the most common form of free radicals is oxygen. When an oxygen molecule becomes electrically charged or “radicalized” it tries to steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage to the DNA and other molecules. Over time, such damage may become irreversible and lead to disease including cancer. Antioxidants are often described as “mopping up”
free radicals, meaning they neutralize the electrical charge and prevent the free radical from taking electrons from other molecules.
Which foods are rich in antioxidants?
Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods including nuts, grains and some meats, poultry and fish. The list below describes food sources of common antioxidants.
• Beta-carotene is found in many foods that are orange in colour, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin, and mangos. Some green leafy vegetables including collard greens, watercress, spinach, and kale are also rich in beta-carotene.
• Lutein, best known for its association with healthy eyes, is abundant in green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach, and kale.
• Lycopene is a potent antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, blood oranges, and other foods. Cooking tomatoes makes the lycopene more bio-available – tomato puree is a good source.
• Selenium is a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods like rice and wheat are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries. The amount of selenium in soil, which varies by region, determines the amount of selenium in the foods grown in that soil. Animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscle. Oily fish is another good source. Brazil nuts can also contain large quantities of selenium.
• Zinc is one of the most vital nutrients we need as it is a component of over 200 enzymes in the body. Zinc helps vitamin A to function. Good sources are shellfish, fish and lean red meat. Plant sources include wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds but these are less bio-available than animal sources.
• Vitamin A is found in three main forms: retinol (Vitamin A1), 3,4-didehydroretinol (Vitamin A2), and 3-hydroxy-retinol (Vitamin A3). Foods rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese.
• Vitamin C is also called ascorbic acid, and can be found in high abundance in many fruits and vegetables and is also found in cereals, beef, poultry and fish.
• Vitamin E, also known as alpha-tocopherol, is found in almonds, in many oils including olive, safflower, corn and soybean oils, and also found in mangos, nuts, broccoli, avocadoes and wheatgerm.
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