We’ve all heard the term free radicals, often used in combination with antioxidants, but what exactly are these? What do they contribute to the way our body functions and how can we eat better to avoid oxidative stress?
Oxidative stress is defined as an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralisation in the form of antioxidants. Antioxidants are the health and beauty industries’ hero, selling billions of dollars worth of supplements, products and foods, all claiming to hold the fountain of youth.
What’s a free radical? Most of us have regularly observed the effects of oxidation in our day-to-day lives. If you’ve ever thrown out a browning apple or fixed a rusty pipe you’ve seen the destructive effects of oxidation when there’s nothing counteracting it. In our bodies on a daily basis we are oxidising carbohydrates (glucose) and converting them to carbon dioxide and water to make energy for our muscles and brains to run on. This process can get messy along the way when the types of foods we consume don’t naturally come equipped to detoxify our systems during oxidation. The result is a body full of free radicals. A body overloaded with free radicals isn’t a happy place.
A pro-oxidative environment not only adds additional stress to your body when it’s trying to heal from workouts, but also over time promotes a host of other ailments from aging skin, chronic inflammation, and kidney disease. That’s only naming a few.
The relationship between oxidation and free radicals is like a scale. You need to be taking in an equally proportionate amount to counteract normal everyday oxidative process. Unfortunately, much of our modern day processed diet lends itself to high free radical production. For instance studies have shown drinking and eating processed sugar (glucose in its most refined form) like a soft drink sends free radical production skyrocketing.
Why would our most basic and most easily utilised form of fuel cause such a negative reaction in our bodies? It’s because for thousands of years our bodies were used to receiving their glucose in a plant based form, pre-packed nicely with the required antioxidants to combat the free radical byproducts of them being broken down. Any food that is not plant-based and in its most basic and whole form will not be packaged optimally for you to safely oxidise without adverse effects along the way.
The bad news is that that cancels out most of the food you pick up at the grocery store, but the good one is that you can start reversing the oxidative stress you’ve put on your body rapidly with simple diet changes. Your body is actually capable of building up a surplus of antioxidants to keep on reserve in order to prevent you from ever entering a pro-oxidative state. A few all-star players of the antioxidant world can probably be found right now in your pantry.
Spices actually pack a powerfully potent punch with levels far outweighing their more glorified antioxidant cohorts: berries. Just a teaspoon of cinnamon on your oatmeal can increase the antioxidant level of your meal by nearly 10 times. Dark leafy and deeply coloured veggies like beetroots and purple cabbage come in as a close second and should be made a staple in everyone’s diets. A couple of helpful rules of thumb tips for spotting high antioxidant foods are: the darker the better and if you cut it open and it doesn’t turn brown you’re good to go.
On a closing note, antioxidant supplements have been found not to be nearly as effective as consuming actual whole plant foods and rank poorly when going up against just about any spice or vegetable by volume. So next time you’re reaching for that pomegranate juice, consider the oxidative effects it will have on you without its seeds and fibre, then head back to the fruit section.
BOOST YOUR ANTIOXIDANT LEVELS WITH THESE FOODS
Spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger, turmeric, mustard and paprika, have all been touted as highly antioxidative, with higher antioxidant levels than berries. Spices have been known to relieve symptoms of everything from motion sickness to inflammation, joint pain, asthma, bronchitis and diarrhea.
Dark blue, red or purple fruits
Blueberries, beetroots, grapes and red cabbage contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that have been known to protect the body against cancer and heart disease whilst boosting the immune system.
Dark green veggies
Popeye was onto something with his muscle boosting spinach snacks. Spinach, broccoli, kale and collard greens are rich in vitamins and minerals that help fight disease as well as being rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium. They help dilate blood vessels and have cancer-fighting properties.
Red berries, particularly raspberries and strawberries are rich in ellagic acid, which has been known to help protect against cancer-causing agents both in the environment and in the diet.
Nuts are a great balanced food with plenty of good fats as well as a small amount of protein. They are rich in reservatrol and plant sterols that helps to lower cholesterol. Each type of nut has a different profile of minerals and phtyochemicals, with walnuts being the highest in omega-3s and Brazil nuts containing the highest amount of selenium.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other food groups that are rich in antioxidants, some of which are fish, tea, sweet potato and orange veggies, beans and whole grains.
© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Daniel Petre