Antioxidants and protection from free radicals

July 25th, 2011

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are a group of nutrients which prevent free radical damage to cells and, therefore, protect the body against cancer, heart disease, arthritis, cataracts, allergies, and slow the aging process.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are very reactive molecules in the body which can attach to and destroy cellular compounds.  They react with these compounds, particularly oxygen, forming more free radicals in chain reaction.  They can come from the environment, foods or drinks, but the majority are a natural end product of reactions that produce energy for cells to live.  In particular, free radicals can cause damage to cell membranes (make them less functional), and genetic material (RNA and DNA), which can lead to disease.  But, they can also be beneficial.  For example, the body’s immune system forms free radicals to destroy bacteria and viruses when attempting to fight infections.

What are environmental sources of free radicals?

Air pollution, tobacco smoke, excessive radiation, sunlight, X-rays, herbicides, pesticides, anesthetics, aromatic hydrocarbons (petroleum based products), and solvents such as formaldehyde, toluene and benzene found in cleaning fluids, paints and furniture polish.

What are dietary sources of free radicals?

Fried, barbecued and charbroiled foods, alcohol and coffee.

How do antioxidants prevent free radical damage?

Antioxidants combine with, and neutralize, the reactive free radicals, therefore, preventing them reacting with other compounds and causing damage.

What are other ways of preventing free radical damage?

By eating a diet rich in antioxidants and reducing the amount of exposure to environmental and dietary free radicals.

What are the major antioxidant nutrients and their dietary sources?

Beta-carotene, C and E and the trace mineral selenium

Beta Carotene is found in:

  • broccoli
  • cantaloupe
  • carrots (and juice)
  • fresh or dried apricots, mangoes and persimmon
  • leafy greens (spinach, kale, mustard, collard, swiss chard)
  • pumpkin
  • sweet potatoes
  • winter squash

Vitamin C is found in:

  • blackberries and raspberries
  • citrus fruits and juices (oranges and grapefruits)
  • cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage)
  • leafy green (mustard, turnip, kale, collard)
  • melons (especially cantaloupe)
  • papaya, kiwi, mangoes
  • red and green peppers
  • strawberries
  • sweet potatoes, with skin
  • tomatoes and tomato juice

Vitamin E is found in:

  • avocados
  • fish and shellfish
  • leafy greens (fresh spinach, kale, collard)
  • mangoes
  • nuts, seeds, wheat germ
  • whole grain products

Selenium is found in:

  • cashews
  • eggs
  • garlic
  • halibut
  • oysters, salmon, tuna
  • scallops
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