These bodyguards are probably on your radar, but do you know how they fight disease and foster good health? Here’s why you need their protection.
Antioxidants are a hot topic of conversation these days, and not just in health-conscious circles. Mention cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s or even premature ageing, and someone’s likely to tell you that antioxidants are the answer. But how many of us really understand what they are or how they work?
What exactly do antioxidants do?
Antioxidants scavenge free radicals, unstable molecules that attack healthy cells in an attempt to bond with them and stabilise themselves. This process can wreak havoc on the body and damage healthy cells right down to their DNA — so we need potent antioxidants to neutralise these rampaging free radicals and help strengthen our defences.
How dangerous are free radicals?
The body unleashes free radicals in response to modern lifestyle and environmental factors. Our exposure to pollution, ultraviolet light, X-rays, cigarette smoke and excess alcohol creates a glut of these harmful molecules that can cause extensive cell damage, a potential disaster for our long-term health.
The body can cope with a certain amount of free radicals, but in large numbers, they set the scene for disease. In fact, experts now link free radicals with at least 50 disorders, from cataracts and inflammatory bowel disease to heart disease, cancer and stroke.
Such illnesses tend to arise in areas where free-radical damage occurs: A joint may turn arthritic, the skin may wrinkle, and arteries may harden and potentially lead to cardiovascular disease. What’s more, when free radicals attack a cell’s DNA, the destruction may cause cancer.
What’s the best antioxidant source?
A body with a healthy supply of antioxidants is better able to fight free radicals and stay well. So where can you find these clever compounds?
The body itself can produce antioxidants, but from our 20s on, this ability starts to diminish. The good news is that we have a rich and easy-to-access source: fruit and veg. As you get older, it’s vital to boost your antioxidant intake with plenty of these foods. Most whole fruit and vegetables contain different combinations of antioxidants, so vary your diet. This way, you’ll consume a wide range of these health-boosting compounds and enjoy all the protection they have to offer.
Can I just take a supplement?
Popping a pill may seem like the easiest solution, but supplements may be a less-than-ideal source of antioxidants. These pills often contain only one or two varieties, whereas wholefoods can provide hundreds, along with a number of other nutrients — and they all work together to offer protection. Furthermore, some studies show that certain antioxidant pills can increase the risk of disease.
When scientists focused on the potential anti-cancer properties of antioxidant supplements in the ’80s, they were surprised by the results. In a study that saw 29,000 male smokers take supplements of the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin A, 16 per cent were more likely to have lung cancer than subjects who didn’t take the supplements. In the next study, the incidence of lung cancer was a massive 28 per cent higher in supplement takers — a worrying result that forced researchers to halt the study early for the sake of the smokers’ health. Although this heightened lung-cancer risk dropped soon after the subjects stopped taking the beta-carotene supplements, their mortality rate was still 7 per cent higher.
Today, research is ongoing, but one thing is clear: Obtaining our antioxidants through deliciously fresh fruit and veg is nature’s way.
How much is enough?
Countless studies suggest that people who eat five to seven serves of antioxidant-rich foods a day enjoy considerably lower risks of cancer and heart disease.
Most foods contain a range of antioxidant compounds, all of which are likely to play a crucial part in protecting your health in the long run. Again, the key to securing their benefits is to eat a colourful array of fruit and veg.
You probably find it easy to fit two pieces of fruit into your day, but to include at least five serves of vegetables in your daily diet, you have to make them feature at lunch and dinner. Boost your vegie intake at breakfast, too: Simply add mushrooms, tomato and spinach to scrambled eggs.
Add a vibrant medley of fresh fruit and vegetables to a daily menu that’s full of wholegrains, lean meats and dairy foods, and you’re sure to establish a strong antioxidant defence team.
10 easy ways to boost your antioxidant intake
Eating a varied, well-balanced diet provides you with a wide range of antioxidants. These easy tips will transform your favourite foods and drinks into delicious fare that offers your body more protection!
Leave the peel on fruit and veg whenever possible, as antioxidants concentrate around the skin. An unpeeled apple gives you about 30 per cent more antioxidants.
Sprinkle cinnamon onto your cereal or porridge, or stir it into smoothies. This tasty spice is extremely high in antioxidants.
Scatter salads with unsalted raw nuts or seeds. A tablespoon or two of these crunchy kernels will give you a healthy dose of antioxidants, especially heart-friendly vitamin E.
Crunch on green veg every day. You’ll secure a range of antioxidants, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Spice up meat dishes, soups and marinades with chilli powder, another concentrated source of antioxidants.
Brighten your potatoes. Mash traditional spuds with carrots or sweet potato for a colourful side that’s packed with beta-carotene.
Choose red wine over white wine. Red grapes offer more anthocyanins than green grapes do. However, excess alcohol can increase the number of free radicals, so drink in moderation.
Chop your own coleslaw. Use red cabbage rather than the white version for extra anthocyanins, and add plenty of carrots for beta-carotene.
Top your brekkie bowl with sliced strawberries or kiwi fruit, as both are good sources of vitamin C. Alternatively, sip a small glass of fresh orange juice.
Replace creamy pasta sauces with tomato-based versions made from canned tomatoes and a dollop of tomato paste. The antioxidant lycopene is more concentrated in cooked and canned tomatoes.
The colourful world of antioxidants!
Flavonoids protect the immune system and have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Find them in tea, red wine, onions, citrus fruits.
Vitamin C protects heart health and may help other antioxidants (such as vitamin E) regenerate. Find it in citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, capsicum, broccoli.
Beta-carotene protects skin and eyes from ultraviolet light. Find it in pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, mango, apricots, red capsicum, leafy green vegetables.
Catechins protect heart health. Find them in cocoa, green tea, black tea, dark grapes.
Polyphenols protect heart health. Find them in bran, coffee, wheat germ, extra-virgin olive oil, cinnamon, cloves, dark chocolate.
Vitamin E protects heart health. Find it in avocado, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils.
Lignins protect against breast cancer and prostate cancer. Find them in wholegrains, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, bran.
Anthocyanins protect the immune system from infection. Find them in purple plums, blueberries, red cabbage, eggplant, red wine.
Lutein and zeaxanthin protect eyes (and possibly skin) from ultraviolet light. Find them in green vegies (such as spinach, kale, broccoli and rocket), egg yolk, sweet corn.
Isoflavones protect against osteoporosis, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Find them in soybeans, lentils, tofu, soy milk.
Lycopene protects against some cancers, especially prostate cancer. Find it in tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit.
Selenium activates an enzyme that might protect against cancer. Find it in meat, fish, eggs, poultry, wholegrains and nuts (especially Brazil nuts).