Why your body needs antioxidants

April 25, 2000

Antioxidants are disease fighters. From warding off heart disease to slowing degeneration of the brain and eyes, talk of the health benefits of antioxidants is quite common today. Antioxidants fight against toxic compounds - free radicals - in the body that can injure cells.

cont. from lifestyle

Free radical production is a normal part of life, part of the equation of simply breathing in oxygen. Usually, the body's natural defense systems neutralize free radicals that develop, rendering them harmless. However, environmental assaults on the body, such as UV radiation, pollutants and alcohol, can overpower the body's ability to neutralize free radicals, allowing them to cause damage to the structure and function of the body's cells. There is good evidence that this damage contributes to aging and leads to a host of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.

Consuming more antioxidants helps provide the body with tools to neutralize harmful free radicals. It is estimated that there are more than 4,000 compounds in foods that act as antioxidants. The most studied include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and the mineral selenium.


Natural state

Most people think "supplements" when they think about getting more antioxidants. The supplement aisle, however, is not the only place to find these important compounds. A better place to find antioxidants is the produce section of your grocery store, as well as the frozen fruit and vegetable section and the whole-grain section. Why? Because the foods in these sections come packaged with other complementary nutrients and phytochemicals. By getting antioxidants in their natural state, you have insurance that you're getting the antioxidants your body needs in the right amount and form.

Some good food sources of the four most studied antioxidants are:

* Vitamin C: Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in all body fluids, so it may be one of our first lines of defense. The body cannot store this powerful antioxidant, so it's important to get some regularly - not a difficult task if you eat fruits and vegetables. Important sources include citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, raw cabbage and potatoes.

* Vitamin E: A fat-soluble vitamin that can be stored with fat in the liver and other tissues, vitamin E is promoted for a range of purposes - from delaying aging to healing sunburn. While it's not a miracle worker, it's another powerful antioxidant. Important sources include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, vegetable oil and fish-liver oil.

* Beta-carotene: The most studied of more than 600 different carotenoids that have been discovered, beta-carotene protects dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits from solar radiation damage.

It is thought that beta-carotene plays a similar role in the body. Carrots, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kale, collards, cantaloupe, peaches and apricots are particularly rich sources of beta-carotene.

* Selenium: This mineral is thought to help fight cell damage by oxygen-derived compounds and may help protect against cancer. It is best to get selenium through foods, as large doses of the supplement form can be toxic. Good food sources include fish, shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken and garlic. Vegetables also can be a good source if grown in selenium-rich soils.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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