Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant nutrients) that protect your body against cell damage by free radicals.
Why worry about free radicals?
A free radical is a molecule which is missing an electron or has one too many. Highly reactive, it circulates inside your body looking for a stable molecule to latch onto. When it finds its victim, the free radical will either cannibalize an electron or use the molecule as a waste dump for its extra one. While the original free radical stabilizes, the host molecule converts into a free radical and starts hunting for its own victim. A chain reaction is set into motion which eventually leads to the destruction of healthy cell membranes and DNA. This is called oxidative stress. If you think of how rust eats away metal, you can get a pretty good idea how free radicals work in your body!
This is where the antioxidants come in; as they circulate in your body they MOP UP these parasitical, free radicals and stop them dead in their tracks. They bind to the bad guys and neutralize them.
Our bodies generate small amounts of free radicals during metabolism. This is the process by which the cells in our body convert nutrients from food into energy. These are easily neutralized but we also get an extra load of these compounds from toxins in our environment. Now the body has trouble keeping up with the work. Our environment is chock full free radicals and they get into us through polluted air and water, household chemicals, personal care products, and foods grown in pesticide-rich farmland. Free radicals play a role in aging, cancer and cardiovascular disease. This is why it’s important to eat a diet rich in antioxidants.
Where do antioxidants come from?
The USDA has compiled a list of foods high in antioxidants. The top fruits are cranberries, blueberries and blackberries. Green tea, beans, artichokes, cinnamon, and surprisingly, Russet potatoes are getting a high rating. A food rule to selecting antioxidant rich foods is to look for bright colors. Phytochemicals are found in pigments. Blueberries were once considered the richest source of antioxidants, but now black rice bran has taken the lead.1
You can buy antioxidant supplements, but a better idea is to get them through fresh food. Your body can assimilate antioxidants more efficiently if you deliver them to your digestive system in the forms of fruits and vegetables. But if you can’t get your daily servings of five fruits and five vegetables, a supplement is the next best thing.
1. Black rice rivals pricey blueberries as source of healthful antioxidants. AS News Service Weekly PressPac: 1 Sept 2010.
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