5 reasons to eat more antioxidants

Antioxidants, found in fruits, vegetables and tea, help your body fight free radicals and can protect you from a number of diseases, Here's what a diet rich in antioxidants can do for you

5 reasons to eat more antioxidants


Free radicals don't sleep or take vacations. One expert quoted in The Antioxidant Miracle estimated that the DNA in every cell in the human body suffers about 10,000 "hits" from free radicals each day. It's not surprising then that the oxidative stress that can result when your antioxidant support isn't up to full strength can produce an array of debilitating conditions. However, if you choose your diet wisely and use supplements as necessary (always under your physician's guidance), antioxidants may do the following.

1. Protect your heart

Even though studies haven't shown conclusively that antioxidant supplements prevent heart disease, there's no doubt that your diet must include frequent doses of antioxidants to keep LDL cholesterol, the "bad" stuff, from turning even worse. Oxidized cholesterol—that is, cholesterol that's been attacked by free radicals—is more likely to burrow into artery walls. Once cholesterol makes its way there, it's even more likely to become oxidized. When this happens, your immune system senses trouble and responds by sending white blood cells to the scene. These defender cells devour cholesterol, turning into frothy blobs called foam cells. As these fat-filled cells accumulate, they form raised patches called plaques, which narrow arteries. Plaques can erupt, blocking the artery and causing a heart attack.

People who eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables have a low risk of heart disease, many studies have shown. Other good sources of heart-healthy antioxidants include tea and wine; both beverages contain high concentrations of flavonoids. Studies suggest that eating a diet high in flavonoids may lower the risk of heart disease by up to 65 percent.

Want to lower the workload for your body's homegrown crew of antioxidants? Eat fewer sweets and starches, which seem to raise levels of free radicals. A study by University of California researchers found that people whose diets included the most high-GI foods had the highest levels of oxidized cholesterol, the kind most likely to cause heart attacks.

2. Protect your DNA

Free radicals can damage the DNA in healthy cells, which may alter their operating instructions and cause them to reproduce uncontrollably and form cancerous tumors. People who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have a low risk for some types of cancer. Lab studies show that phytochemicals stifle the growth of tumors in various ways, including by scavenging and demobilizing free radicals.

This news should have you seeing red—and orange and yellow—when you shop for vegetables, since carotenoids (which tend to have these pigments) may be one of the most potent types of antioxidants for fighting cancer. In particular, studies have revealed low rates of prostate cancer among men who consume a lot of tomatoes and cooked tomato products, which contain the carotenoid lycopene. One study found a 64 percent reduction in prostate cancer among men who consumed the most beta-carotene, a carotenoid that's found in carrots and other yellow or orange fruit and vegetables.

3. Control diabetes complications

High blood sugar seems to speed up production of some unusually nasty free radicals. These destructive molecules probably cause many of the complications that make diabetes so frightening, such as blindness, nerve damage, and kidney failure.

Some promising signs suggest that antioxidants could alleviate some diabetes symptoms. For instance, European studies have shown that dietary supplements containing alpha-lipoic acid (found in spinach, broccoli, and beef) may relieve the pain and discomfort of diabetic neuropathy. Scientists in India have shown that the antioxidant compound curcumin, which gives the spice turmeric its yellow color, slowed kidney damage in diabetic rats. The antioxidants resveratrol (found in red wine) and quercetin (apples and onions are good sources) had a similar effect.

Some phytochemicals may even offer protection against diabetes itself. In a Finnish study of more than 4,300 nondiabetic men and women whom researchers followed for 23 years, those who ate the most of a type of carotenoid found in citrus fruits, red bell peppers, papaya, cilantro, corn, and watermelon cut their risk of type 2 diabetes by 42 percent.

4. Defend against dementia

Brain cells of people diagnosed with devastating cognitive conditions show evidence of damage by free radicals. What's more, free radicals seem to be one cause of the clumps of proteins in the brain, called amyloids, that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.

No one is sure how to prevent Alzheimer's, but eating more oranges and whole-grain bread could be a good start. Human studies offer clues that vitamins C and E may be your brain's best defense. Dutch researchers asked more than 5,000 people over age 55 about their diets, then followed them for six years. In the end, people who consumed the most vitamin C reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by 34 percent, while diets rich in vitamin E appeared to be even more protective, slashing the threat of dementia by nearly half.

It's less clear whether taking high doses of antioxidants will do an even better job of safeguarding the brain. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that taking daily supplements containing 2,000 IU of vitamin E—or about 66 times more than you'll find in a multivitamin—appeared to slow the onset of Alzheimer's. However, other studies have failed to show that vitamin E pills protect the brain.

5. Save your sight

Tired jokes about rabbits not wearing eyeglasses aside, carrots are indeed good for your eye health (although they won't do anything to sharpen your eyesight). As anyone who tends a garden knows, rabbits eat many other plants besides carrots, and so should you. Here's why.

Carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A—an essential nutrient for healthy eyes. But the latest research suggests that other antioxidant phytochemicals may also be critical for preserving vision. Take lutein, another carotenoid like beta-carotene, which is found in hefty amounts in spinach, kale and collard greens. Retina cells at the back of the eyeball soak up lutein, apparently to ward off free radicals. When researchers analyzed the diets of more than 1,700 female volunteers in Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin, they found that women under 75 who ate plenty of foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, another carotenoid, appeared to halve their risk of macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in older folks.

Consuming lots of foods filled with these antioxidants may help prevent cataracts, too. So eat your carrots, but don't skimp on the leafy greens, squash, corn or peas, all of which are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, as are egg yolks, honeydew and kiwifruit.

Find more natural prescriptions for everything from colds to cancer in Food Cures (Reader's Digest), available in the Best Health Shop now.

Food Cures; Reader's Digest

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