As the body metabolizes the oxygen we breathe, a side effect is the creation of unstable molecules called free radicals, which cause damage to DNA and other cells. This process is called oxidation; luckily, the body can cope with some free radicals and even needs a limited amount. However, an overload of free radicals over time causes damage that may become irreversible and lead to many diseases including some types of cancer.
Free radicals can also form in our body from environmental causes such as pollution, radiation, smoking, and alcohol. In today’s environment, you can image that we are exposed to these things every day!
This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants attach to and remove free radicals from the body; this can reduce the damage caused by oxidation in the cells. A diet high in antioxidants can even prevent the damage from happening in the first place; therefore, fitting them into your diet can reduce the risk of oxidation to your cells and also of cancer occurring, as well as many other diseases.
Antioxidants are most abundant in fruits and vegetables, especially berries and others with bright pigments like greens and sweet potatoes.
Some common antioxidants, and the foods they are found in, include:
- Allium sulphur – leeks, onions, and garlic
- Beta-carotene – pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots (the beta-carotene makes them orange!)
- Lignans – sesame seeds, bran, whole grains
- Lutein – green, leafy vegetables like spinach, and corn
- Lycopene – tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon
- Vitamin A – liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, and egg yolks
- Vitamin C – oranges, blackcurrants, kiwifruit, mangoes, broccoli, capsicum and strawberries
- Vitamin E – avocados, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils
- Zinc – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts
How can I get antioxidants?
Increase your intake of these fruits and vegetables! Fresh is best, but frozen vegetables are the next best thing and are often more affordable than fresh varieties, especially if the fruit or vegetable is not in season. Because fresh produce usually tastes the best eaten simply raw or steamed, I use frozen vegetables in soups, curries, stir fries, or pasta dishes. Frozen fruits are great for making smoothies or desserts like berry crumble.
If you decide to buy canned fruits and vegetables, look at the ingredient label to find out what liquid it has been canned in. For fruits, choose the ones that are canned in 100% fruit juice instead of syrup, which adds unnecessary sugar. For vegetables, avoid those canned in salt water. Look for the cans labeled “no salt added.”
By adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, you get so many benefits, but the antioxidants are especially beneficial for those of us already at high risk for cancer.
Sources: Better Health Victoria: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Antioxidants National Cancer Institute (US): http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet