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“What are antioxidants and how do they help the body? Can I get them in my foods?

A Question from Tim of Palm Desert "ask clarks" header

By CLARK’S NUTRITION

The body’s primary antioxidants are a group of substances including vitamins C and E, beta carotene and the mineral selenium. The sulfur amino acid called cysteine; lipoic acid and CoQ10 are also popular antioxidants. Other plant, non-vitamin or mineral food antioxidants are called phytonutrients. Popular phytonutrients antioxidants such as lycopene (tomato), lutein (spinach and egg yolks), catechins (green tea, dates), anthocyanidns (berries), quercetin (apples, onions) make eating fruits and vegetables daily a must for good health. Vitamin E is found in foods that are high in polyunsaturated fats (although most polyunsaturated fats are refined and there is a lack of vitamin E), such as nuts, seeds and whole grains. Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables that are fresh or frozen and not cooked. While phytonutrient antioxidants come from eating fruits and vegetables, the biggest thing to remember is antioxidants help each other. As an example, some antioxidants often have certain areas in the body that they are more effective in helping to maintain good health, such as lutein (eyes). Large amounts of antioxidants are not as beneficial as smaller consistent amounts with a wide variety of antioxidants being the most advantages. To get a good array of antioxidants from foods, you will need to make sure that your diet includes a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

The primary action of antioxidants is to reduce cell damage from what is known as free radicals. Free radicals are created when there is an unbalance of electrons on molecules such as oxygen. Normal metabolism of foods and exercise can produce indigenous (inside the body) free radicals. Free radical exposure also happens when we get sunlight (oxidizing radiation) and exposure to environmental toxins such as smoke (cigarette directly or second hand) or smog (exogenous).

A lot of research has been done with antioxidants in relation to health and disease. Research shows that a lack of antioxidants from foods can lead to accelerated disease in some situations and is linked to chronic inflammation. (The Linus Pauling Institute of Medicine at Oregon State University is a primary research institute for micronutrients and human health). While food fortification was instilled circa 1940 to eliminate vitamin deficiencies, vitamin deficiencies are still prevalent (vitamin D, B-12, and calcium amongst the elderly).  It is important to eat good quality whole foods and not rely on processed foods which are typically low in antioxidants and other nutrients, even when fortified. Remember the body needs 45 micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are necessary for life and must be provided by the diet. Antioxidant supplementation has been shown in some circumstances to have good benefits (daily vitamin E 100-400 IU, vitamin C 250mg, beta carotene 6 mg and selenium 70-200mcg in supplemental form) have been shown to reduce age related eye disorders. Remember eating color is one way to ensure phytonutrients(s) consumption and is a foundation in any antioxidant plan.

 

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References

  1. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/feature-story/linus-pauling-institute-director-steps-down
  2. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/feature-story/linus-pauling-institute-director-steps-down
  3. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/feature-story/early-stage-breast-cancer-slowed
  4. Talbott, The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins New York, NY. 2007. Pg. 272-5.
  5.  Sardesai, Introduction to Clinical Nutrition, Marcel Dekker, Inc. New York, NY. PG 157-162.
  6. Zimmerman, Burgerstein’s Handbook of Nutrition (Micronutrients in the Prevention and Therapy of Disease), Thieme New York, NY 2001, pg. 2-7, 29-32, 53-8.
  7. Higdon Ph.D., an Evidence Based Approach to Vitamins and Minerals. Thieme New York, NY. 2003. Pg. Forward, 39-47, 65-71.