Why do we need antioxidants — and how do we get them?

By Linda Klope, C.D.E., R.D.

ESCANABA — You have undoubtedly heard a lot about the health benefits of antioxidants and the foods that contain them. Chocolate, coffee, tea, blueberries, grapes, red wine are popular sources. The antioxidants in carrots, spinach, kale and broccoli are not quite so popular.

It all started in the early 1990s when scientists began to understand the role of what are known as free radicals-atoms or groups of atoms formed as a result of the oxidation process that takes place naturally in the body through exercise, metabolism of foods and other bodily processes.

About one to two percent of cells become damaged through the oxidation process and become free radicals. Lacking a critical molecule, they circulate through the body in search of a molecule to fill that need. When a free radical “steals” its needed molecule from another cell, that cell then becomes a free radical itself, trying to “steal” from another cell and triggering a chain reaction that can eventually lead to many disease processes, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and the atherosclerosis that is a major cause of both heart attack and stroke.

Toxins such as cigarette smoke, polluted air and pesticides in food and water generate additional free radicals, and the body simply isn’t able to generate enough antioxidants to counter this assault.

Fortunately, protection can be obtained from foods containing antioxidants. These include vitamins C and E, beta carotene and other carotenoids, minerals such as selenium and manganese, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens; glutathione, coenzyme Q10 and lipoic acid.

The body needs a good mix of these antioxidants. You can’t get your daily supply through chocolate and coffee alone. Nor can you load up on broccoli or kale, whether you like these foods or not.

That’s why good dietary advice stresses eating a variety of foods and at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Follow that advice, and you’ll probably get the antioxidants you need.

Large epidemiological studies have shown that persons who eat greater quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and premature aging. But studies using supplements — rather than the actual food — to test the health benefits of individual antioxidants have generally produced negative or inconclusive results.

As is often the case, the best benefits are found naturally. Most nutritional experts believe antioxidants cannot be taken away from the natural context of the foods in which they exist and still provide the same benefits. Additionally, there are other nutrients in blueberries, grapes, tomatoes, chocolate, tea and red wine that may offer benefits independent of the antioxidants they contain or in combination with them.

While antioxidants may have become overly hyped, there is no risk and substantial benefits to be gained from eating a good diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

— — —

EDITOR’S NOTE: Linda Klope is a certified diabetic educator and registered dietician with OSF St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group.