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How Antioxidants in food can help you

Updated on April 21, 2008

Truth about Antioxidants

They fight deadly "free radicals," protecting your cells from the ravages of oxidation. They can stave off the ills of aging and lengthen life spans by years -- they may even prevent cancer. They're called antioxidants, and they're potent molecules that lie dormant and unassuming in many foods -- until they're needed. Here's some information on antioxidants, where to find them and what they can do for you and your health.

What are antioxidants?

To understand antioxidants, you need to know about oxidation. As living, breathing organisms, we need oxygen to live. Unfortunately, some oxygen compounds are highly reactive and can cause the destructive process of oxidation. If you want to know what oxidation looks like, find some rust. It's one of the most recognizable results of oxidation and it'll give you a good idea of what the chemical process can do to your body.

Most of the oxygen compounds found in your body are safe and are needed for your survival. Some, known as free radicals, can do real damage. These free radicals can set off chain reactions that tear apart proteins, good fats and even DNA. Free radicals are thought to be one of the causes of cancer and the cause of some of the nastier side effects of aging, like arthritis. Thankfully, your body is smart enough to keep free-radical-fighting compounds around to prevent damage, and aptly enough, they're called antioxidants. Some might seem exotic to the average Joe: Glutathione and the enzymes catalase, superoxide dismutase and peroxidase. Others are more familiar: Vitamins C and E, to name a couple.

Here are the more commonly known antioxidants:

-Vitamin A

-Vitamins B6 and B12

-Vitamin C

-Vitamin E

-Folic Acid

-Polyphenolic antioxidants (resveratrol and flavonoids)

-Carotenoids (lycopene, carotenes)

Functions of Antioxidants:In theory, antioxidants can prevent or slow cancer, counteract the ravages of aging and make you healthier overall. Early clinical trials with common antioxidants like vitamins C and E showed this to be true. Recent studies, however, have been inconclusive. Some, like the 1993 Chinese Cancer Prevention study, found that a combination of beta-carotene, vitamin E and selenium significantly reduced cancer rates. The 1999 Women's Health Study (WHS) found that vitamin E and beta-carotene had no measurable effect on cancer rates. Bottom line: The jury is still out on the effectiveness of antioxidants, but adding more vitamin C and E to your diet won't hurt and will probably help your overall health in the long run.Natural sources of antioxidants:Thankfully, antioxidants can be found in many places. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources, with berries and beans coming out on top with the most antioxidants per gram. Carrots, green beans, red bell peppers, and broccoli are also great, and mushrooms are packed with antioxidants, despite their lack of colorful compounds. Coffee and tea are also excellent sources.The following list will give you a good idea of which foods harbor which antioxidants and vitamins. Beans and blueberries come out on top, with artichoke hearts and prunes making the top 10.

Vitamin A: Mango, broccoli, carrots, tomato juice, sweet potato, pumpkin, beef liver.

Vitamin C: Spinach, broccoli, snow peas, tomato juice, mango, orange, grapefruit juice, strawberries, red bell peppers.

Vitamin E: Polyunsaturated plant oils, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, avocado, sweet potato, shrimp, cod.

Selenium: Seafood, meats, grains.

Vitamin B6: Bananas, watermelons, tomato juice, broccoli, spinach, potatoes, white rice, chicken breast.

Vitamin B12: Meats, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, shellfish.

Folic Acid: Tomato juice, green beans, broccoli, spinach, lady's finger, lentils, black eyed peas.

Supplements:If you can't get your hands on good veggies, you might want to look into supplements to get a dose of antioxidants. Multivitamins contain tons of antioxidants, although scientists dispute how much of the vitamins in supplements are actually absorbed by the body.

How many antioxidant supplements should you consume? Good question. Scientists aren't really sure how many antioxidants the human body needs for optimal health. They're also not certain that every body has the same needs. Try to get plenty of antioxidants. With the exception of beta-carotene, which has been linked to increased rates of cancer when consumed in high doses, the compounds are relatively safe.

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