Antioxidants are a buzzword when it comes to healthy eating, but many people are ignorant of what they are and what they do. Antioxidants are a key element in eating well. This article explains what antioxidants are and how people can increase their levels with sensible food choices and cooking methods.
Antioxidants are often mentioned when discussing healthy food choices because research seems to show they may help to protect the body against a range of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. But just what are antioxidants and how can you get more of them into your diet?
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Antioxidants are natural substances, some of which are produced by the human body. Others are found in certain foods, such as those that contain vitamin A or E. Antioxidants help to fight free radicals, potentially harmful molecules which are produced as part of the body’s natural metabolism and which react with oxygen. Free radicals are unstable and so attack the nearest cells in an attempt to stabilize. This can harm healthy cells, damaging genes, membranes, and proteins.
Fortunately, the human body is equipped to deal with a reasonable level of free radicals. However, modem lifestyles that include increased alcohol consumption, smoking, pollution, and UV light have a significant contributory effect on the release of free radicals, which can cause extensive damage to cells.
How food can help
Youngsters normally produce enough antioxidants to cope with excess free radicals, but as soon as they hit 20 years of age, their ability to produce enough antioxidants starts to diminish. The most important antioxidants are those that contain vitamins A, C, and E and selenium, but there are others, such as lycopene or anthocyanins. Studies seem to suggest that people who eat between five and seven serving of foods rich in these and other antioxidants have a considerably lower risk of developing cancer and heart disease. Antioxidant levels can also be boosted through vitamin supplements, but again, research seems to suggest that eating whole foods is more beneficial. A supplement may only contain one or two antioxidants, whereas whole foods often contain hundreds, as well as other nutrients.
Boosting antioxidant levels
In addition to eating three meals a day, you can make a few changes to the way you eat to boost your antioxidant levels. For example, if you leave the skin on fruit and vegetables rather than peeling, you could increase your antioxidant levels by as much as 30 percent. Instead of adding sugar to breakfast cereals and porridge to sweeten, sprinkle a little cinnamon or add sliced strawberries, kiwi fruit, or blueberries. Add texture to your salad by sprinkling over a tablespoon of unsalted nuts or seeds, both excellent sources of vitamin E as well as antioxidants. If you like hot, spicy food, then you will add a concentrated dose of antioxidants by using chili powder as an ingredient in soups, marinades, and meat dishes. If you love your mashed potato, consider mixing it with mashed carrots or mashed sweet potato to increase your beta-carotene levels. Finally, ditch the cream sauces, swapping them for tomato-based ones using tinned tomatoes and tomato puree, as these have concentrated levels of lycopene, far more than is found in raw tomatoes.
A well-balanced diet is a key to boosting your antioxidant levels, but small changes to your food preparation and cooking can make a significant difference, helping to protect your body against disease without you even noticing.