Superfoods have been at the forefront of nutrition research for decades. It seems we cannot learn enough about antioxidants and free radicals! The importance of eating a diet with foods high in antioxidants and other beneficial compounds goes beyond looking and "feeling" younger. You can reduce the chances of getting certain chronic diseases by eating foods high in antioxidants more commonly known as "superfoods" (more obviously known as whole nutritious plant foods!). Some studies show that even the severity of the common cold or flu can be reduced with a diet high in antioxidants! Antioxidants serve to prevent and remedy chronic inflammation and cell damage by giving our bodies the arsenal they need for proper cell repair.
Free radicals are the "bad guys" in nature. They are generated when cells undergo normal metabolism, with the use of oxygen, or when the body defends itself against bacteria and viruses. Free radicals are also produced when molecules are damaged by the sun's rays, pollutants, pesticides, cigarette smoke, radiation, reactive oxygen species, certain metals, alcohol, and unhealthy foods (trans fat, rancid fats and excess added sugars). If you like chemistry, you'd be interested to know that the damage happens when a free unpaired electron attaches onto a molecule, whereas antioxidants prevent the damage by quenching the free electron. This reaction happens between molecules all the time, and it's a bit like passing around a very dangerous "hot potato"!
Fortunately, our bodies can eliminate free radicals with enzymes and with the antioxidants provided by certain nutrients in foods. If there are not enough antioxidants or enzyme available to eliminate free radicals, the electrons can go about damaging many cells and cause cell death. Think of what rust does to metal - these are free electrons breaking up the structure of metal. Antioxidants help to "quench the fire of free radicals".
Eating foods high in antioxidants unfortunately does not extend the length of your life, according to a recent research analysis. However, a diet that is overall high in antioxidants provides a lower risk of the oxidative damage responsible for the progression of various chronic diseases, especially those involving chronic inflammation. Some of these diseases include Type 2 diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease or heart disease, and peripheral artery disease (sometimes linked to dementia and Alzheimer's).
More and more large health organizations are promoting the use of a diet based on whole plant foods in order to combat and prevent various chronic diseases. If you already eat a diet rich in whole grains, beans and lentils, seeds and nuts, (and perhaps moderate amounts of fatty fish or seafood,) then you are on the right track! If you don't, here are a few reasons to base your diet largely on whole plant foods:
1. A diet centered on plants drastically lowers the amount of cholesterol you consume, since plant foods contain no cholesterol. When cholesterol is oxidized by free radicals, there is an increased risk that it can be damaging to your blood vessels and lead to cardiovascular disease. (Lower cholesterol means less risk!)
2. Whole plant foods have been assessed to have, on average, 64 times more antioxidant power than animal-based foods. (Some foods have up to 10,000 times more!)
3. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains contain plenty of fibre, unlike animal foods. Even moderate increases in fibre have been shown to lower the amount of cholesterol build-up in your blood vessels.
In my next post I will provide a list of the main antioxidant powerhouses available to you in grocery stores in North America. The good news is that these foods are already part of a healthy diet! I will offer some easy ways to incorporate these nutrient powerhouses into each meal.
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