Antioxidants, Clean Eating and Good Health
If you’re interested in health, wellness and clean-eating, then you will almost certainly have heard of antioxidants. You probably know they are a good thing, and that we want lots of them. But what are antioxidants? How do they contribute to our good health and how do we make sure we have enough of them?
What is an antioxidant?
Oxidation is a chemical process that occurs in the body. It produces molecules called free-radicals, which run amok causing damage to the cells of the body. Oxidation occurs in even the healthiest of bodies, as part of the normal physiological response, but the process is balanced out by the action of antioxidants. Antioxidants are nutrients and enzymes that mop up the DNA-damaging free-radicals, preventing them from causing harm, and restoring our body to a natural equilibrium.
Excessive oxidation in the body occurs for a number of additional reasons, such as in response to chronic inflammation, acute disease, infections, smoking and eating inflammatory foods (such as refined sugar, chemical additives and refined white flours). High levels of oxidation in the body overwhelm the body’s defensive mechanism of antioxidants; when this happens, it causes damage to the cells of our body.
The damage caused by free radicals, known as oxidative stress, has been implicated as a major contributing factor in a range of chronic and acute diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease1; migraines2; cancer, diabetes, septic shock, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases3.
Antioxidants and cancer
Oxidative stress and free-radical damage to the DNA of cells, can in some cases, lead to the damaged cell mutating and becoming cancerous. This is thought to be one of the reasons why a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains protects against cancer.
How to consume more antioxidants
Although the body does make some antioxidants, it relies on dietary sources for the rest. Antioxidants consumed in the diet include the vitamins A, C and E, lycopene and betacarotene. Fruits, vegetables and grains all contain high levels of antioxidants. One of the reasons why nutritionists advise people to ‘eat the rainbow’, is because different coloured fruits and vegetables contain different antioxidants. Eating a wide variety of these foods means that you are providing the body with a variety of different antioxidants.
Because of the clear benefits of antioxidants in the body, there are a wide range of antioxidant supplements available to purchase. These supplements should be used with caution. Scientific studies do not show that antioxidant supplementation provides much additional protection against developing cancer4,5,6.
In fact, other studies have shown that antioxidant supplementation can actually increase the risk of certain types of cancer. In particular, beta-carotene and retinol have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer7,8.
The health benefits of natural antioxidants, consumed in the diet are clear. These antioxidants protect the body against free-radicals, preventing cellular damage that can cause chronic diseases such as cancer, dementia and heart disease. Artificial supplementation of antioxidants has not been proven to be effective and could actually increase your risk of disease.
The optimal and safest way to increase consumption of antioxidants in the diet is to eat a diet rich in a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. At the same time, you should reduce activities that cause oxidative stress by not eating inflammatory foods, smoking or exposing your body to artificial sweeteners and chemicals.
A clean-eating diet, full of fresh, whole foods is the best way to ensure an adequate, daily intake of natural antioxidants.