Anti-oxidants are one of the best reasons to eat more plant foods. If everyone knew what powers they had, the government would never need to encourage us to eat 2 pieces of fruit a day and 5 serves of vegetables – we’d eat WAY more than that without anyone saying anything!
So what are anti-oxidants, and what do they do? Read on and find out!
The chemical factory
Our bodies are big, complicated chemical factories. All day long, every minute, chemical reactions are occurring. Molecules from food, air and our own body parts are breaking down into atoms, and those atoms are recombining with other atoms, then connecting to form entirely new substances needed to run the ‘factory’ and make our bodies function at all levels.
We need to know a little bit of chemistry to understand the significance of how these compounds break down and recombine – but don’t shut this page down – it’s really interesting and not difficult. Each of the main atoms in the human body ‘wants’ to have a set number of electrons in its outer shell. Oxygen, nitrogen and carbon need to have 8 electrons, and hydrogen needs to have 2 electrons – then they can be called ‘stable atoms’. A stable atom is ‘content’ and causes no damage to things around it. But if one of these common atoms ‘can’t find a chair’ or is left with anything less than 8 electrons in its outer shell (2 for hydrogen), it will go crazy trying to join up with another atom that is also short of electrons, to try and make up the difference. Such an atom, with the wrong number of electrons, is called ‘unstable’.
An unstable atom has a special name – it is called a ‘free radical’ which well describes its life of chaos and destruction. Ideally, an atom with a shortage of electrons, a free radical, will combine with another unstable atom, and all will be well – together they become ‘stable’. But if they cannot find such a partner, they are like a child at the party who, upon finding they have no chair in the game, does not retire to the edge to watch, but throws a tantrum. In the same way, havoc reigns in the body until the ‘free radical’ atom finds a suitable partner. This havoc takes the form of stealing atoms from the walls of surrounding organs until it becomes ‘stable’. This damages the cell at all levels, including the DNA, which is then set for mutation, the first step of cancer. Only anti-oxidants can prevent and mend this damage at the cellular level, which will eventually show up as disease. The unstable atom may now be stable – but at the expense of the health of the surrounding organ.
An anti-oxidant is a compound that contains atoms with extra electrons in their outer shells which are then shared with those unstable atoms it finds in the body. Oxygen, carbon and nitrogen end up then with 8 electrons in their outer shell, and hydrogen – 2 electrons. This causes those unstable atoms to become stable and ‘settle down’, find their place and do their jobs in the body. This translates to minimal or no damage to surrounding body organs, which means vibrant health.
Where do we get anti-oxidants?
From food – and from a specific range of foods. Foods which contain anti-oxidants are fruit, vegetables, legumes, tubers, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Foods which contain next to no anti-oxidants are meat, fish and dairy foods.
From this it should seem clear to even a young child that the more plant foods we eat, the healthier we will be and the less illness we should have. On the other hand, the more animal foods we eat, the more chance there is for damage to body organs, resulting in ill health. This is in fact what the science shows, and now you know why.
While this anti-oxidant story is not the entire story of health, it is a vitally important part of it: we limit vegetable intake to our own demise.
The best sources of anti-oxidants
We can tell which plants have the highest levels of anti-oxidants by looking at their colours.
The general rule is that the brighter or darker the colour, the more anti-oxidants are on board.
More free radicals are made stable by red grapes than green, by yellow corn than white, by red cabbage than white cabbage, by blackberries than by white mulberries. The pigment IS the anti-oxidant.
Berries have some of the highest anti-oxidant levels in the plant kingdom. Comparing 100 sorts of berries for anti-oxidant levels places crowberries and dog-roseberries first. I’ve never seen those berries before, but of the berries more commonly available, the awards go to blackberries, then cranberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries in that order. Even dried berries such as dried cranberries and currants pack in a lot of anti-oxidants.
Berries and pomegranates not only help prevent DNA damage, but go further to stimulate the body’s own anti-oxidant enzymes. Now that is powerful – they bring more anti-oxidants on board than they started with.
Pomegranate juice has even more antioxidants than red wine, grape juice, green tea and acai juice.
Even more concentrated sources of antioxidants are herbs and spices, particularly turmeric.
Some of the things anti-oxidants help with
Here are a few of the discovered benefits of anti-oxidants.
- Plentiful antioxidant content reduces blood pressure and inflammation in arteries, and therefore protects against heart attacks.
- Anti-oxidants in cranberry juice help protect against urinary tract infections.
- Anti-oxidants from cherries can stop the pain of gout fast.
- Anti-oxidants from all foods can prevent, slow and often reverse tumour growth by preventing and reversing DNA damage from free radicals. It is noteworthy however that synthetic antioxidants from supplements have been found in some cases to actually promote tumour growth. Food is always the safest option.
- Eating cherries and blueberries reduces muscle soreness in endurance runners and weight lifters.
- Anti-oxidants also appear to lower the risk of diabetes and depression, improve asthma, gastric reflux and Barrett’s oesophagus and raise sperm counts.
So let’s raise our glasses of pomegranate juice, cranberry juice or cherry juice – “To the power of anti-oxidants to protect our bodies from self-destruction.”