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"Antioxidants" is one of those buzzwords that gets used a lot, even though most people don't fully understand what it means. We know that antioxidant rich foods are really good for us, and we must buy antioxidant skin care products to keep our skin healthy and avoid the signs of aging. We need antioxidants, we must always say "yes" to antioxidants. But why? What are these mythical compounds, and why does everyone always make a big deal out of them?
"Antioxidants are compounds found in food that stop or slow damage to cells," Lauri Wright, Ph.D., RD, LD, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida, tells SELF. . They are found naturally in many foods, especially plants. They help prevent cell damage by "cleaning" or eliminating waste products in our cells, called free radicals, before they can cause damage. "Antioxidants are released from the food we eat through digestion and travel through the bloodstream and into cells," where Wright explains that they work on free radicals.
Now you may be wondering, "What is a free radical?"
Speaking of words often dismissed, rarely explained: the infamous "free radical." "'Free radicals' is a general term used for compounds that are highly reactive, meaning they can bind and bind together and ultimately damage normal [cells] in the body, such as DNA," Edward Giovannucci, MD, professor of nutrition and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health epidemiology tells SELF: Free radicals are most often implicated in cell damage leading to cancer development.
“[Free radicals] can be caused by external sources, such as smoking or toxins, but many of them come from normal metabolism in the body. Therefore, we can control them to some extent, for example, not smoking or overeating, but not completely, ”says Giovannucci.
The body has built-in defenses to reduce the impact of free radicals, but you may need some help. That's where antioxidants come in. These molecules bind to free radicals, "potentially reducing damage to molecules such as DNA," Giovannucci says. Once linked to antioxidants, free radicals are no longer free to bind to and damage parts of your cells.
Many plants contain compounds that act as antioxidants.
“Vitamins that act as antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and the mineral selenium. Other non-vitamin substances that act as antioxidants include lutein and lycopene, "says Wright. Giovannucci adds that there are many other lesser-known compounds in foods that, at least in laboratory settings, have been shown to have antioxidant properties. We are talking about tens of thousands of compounds, potentially.
But it's hard to know for sure how and if they protect your body from free radical damage.
It is really difficult to say how important each individual antioxidant compound is in the human body. For one thing, there are so many. And what's more, a lab test can't tell us how something works once it's in our digestive system and in our bloodstream. "In the body it has to be absorbed first in the intestine, then reach the appropriate organ in high enough concentrations, and then reach the precise part of the cell that suffers free radical damage," explains Giovannucci. "Also, there are so many compounds that many interactions are possible." All of this makes it virtually impossible to determine how important a specific antioxidant can be to our health.
What we can do is identify certain foods that have proven health benefits, which may be attributable to the antioxidants they contain.
By studying certain antioxidant-rich foods and how they affect disease risk, experts can make recommendations on what to eat more of, explains Giovannucci. “For some examples, tomatoes, which are high in the powerful antioxidants lycopene, appear to be associated with a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer. Foods high in beta-carotene appear to be associated with a lower risk of breast cancer (particularly estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer), and coffee, which contains many antioxidants, appears beneficial for some liver diseases, including liver cancer ", He says. Coffee actually has one of the highest antioxidant concentrations of any food, he adds. But whether those benefits come directly from antioxidants, some other compounds, or a combination is still quite difficult for researchers to confirm.
Loading antioxidant-rich foods will improve your health, regardless of the role these compounds play.
Vitamins and minerals that have antioxidant properties are essential nutrients, Giovannucci explains, which means we need them for other aspects of our health. So no matter what, you should eat them regularly. Foods rich in antioxidants include, but are not limited to: tomatoes, carrots, oranges and grapefruits, blueberries and strawberries, beans, walnuts, apples, red wine, green tea, broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. In addition to antioxidants, fruits and vegetables contain other essential vitamins and minerals, in addition to macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates, as well as fiber and water. There are countless reasons to eat them on a daily basis. Wright suggests eating five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day, sticking to the most colorful ones to make the most antioxidant-packed choices. Don't forget whole grains, coffee, and tea, too. Giovannucci says to fight for variety. "A good diet should contain a wide spectrum of plant foods."
Since studies can't really tell us whether it is specifically antioxidants or other components of an antioxidant-rich food that are responsible for the positive health benefits, both Wright and Giovannucci suggest getting antioxidants from whole foods rather than supplements. In this way, you will reap the health benefits regardless of which specific mineral or compound turns out to be responsible for them.