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By Karen Alexander

Oncology Wellness Specialist on 04/14/2017

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

In recent years, researchers, the market and the media have given much attention to the terms “antioxidant” and “free radical”. In this bulletin, we are going to discuss the basic principles of these two concepts, the beneficial properties of antioxidants and how they help protect the body against damaging free radicals.

Free Radicals
Free radicals are unstable molecules. They contain an odd number of electrons and therefore are always looking to “steal” an electron from another molecule. When this happens, they turn that previously stable molecule into a free radical. Since they are chemically unstable, free radicals damage cell membranes or alter DNA, which results in cellular injuries that interrupt normal function. This can accelerate the development of atherosclerosis, inflammatory conditions, certain cancers, and the process of aging, among others. 

Free radicals are continuously formed in the body. They are derived from normal metabolic processes and external sources (exposure to X-rays, ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, inflammatory processes, and industrial chemicals).

Antioxidants are stable molecules – stable enough to donate an electron to a dangerous free radical and neutralize it, thereby reducing its capacity to damage. They protect cells from the process of oxidation (the negative effective of oxygen). The principle vitamin antioxidants are Vitamins E and C.

Studies suggest that the antioxidants naturally found in fresh fruits and vegetables are very beneficial when it comes to protecting against excessive oxidation. The antioxidants found in dietary supplements are not as beneficial, and can actually interfere with the body’s production of antioxidants. This can lead to carcinogenic effects on your cells. In fact, the American Institute of Cancer Research discourages the use of antioxidant supplements to prevent cancer, as they may actually increase your risk of developing some specific cancers, including lung and prostate.

The benefits of antioxidants include:

  • Repairing damaged molecules
  • Blocking metal radical production
  • Stimulating gene expression and endogenous antioxidant production
  • Providing a "shield effect" by attaching to your DNA to protect it from free radicals
  • Promoting cancer cells to "commit suicide"

Naturally occurring antioxidants are most often found in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, root vegetables and oils). They can also be found in other foods – for example egg yolk, liver, and fat from meats are all rich in Vitamin E.

Exposure to heat reduces the antioxidant effect of foods. Quick cooking methods with low heat exposure best preserve the antioxidants in foods.

Below are 5 tips to boost your antioxidant intake from natural sources:
1. Let fruits and vegetables make up at least half your plate at meals. 
2. Choose a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Eating different-colored foods gives you a variety of antioxidants.
3. Eat raw fruit and vegetables as much as possible, and choose cooking methods that are quick and low in heat.
4. Include smoothies made with fruits, vegetables and nuts. This is an easy way to add extra antioxidants to your diet. Make sure to drink them shortly after they are prepared, because once you peel and blend the fruits and vegetables they start to oxidize and lose antioxidant properties.
5. Add herbs and spices to your favorite dishes. Studies have shown that they are full of antioxidant properties.

Recipe of the Week: Fruit Cocktail

1 red apple
1 cup pineapple
1 kiwi
1 mango
8 strawberries
1 grape bunch (seedless)
¼ of a small cantaloupe
2 bananas
2 cups orange juice
Shredded coconut
Sliced almonds
Optional: 4 guavas (seeded)

Chop all fruits, except bananas (cut them just before serving).
Place all ingredients and the juice in a bowl and mix together.
Serve immediately. Top with bananas, granola, sliced almonds and shredded coconut.

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