by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

I know you see the term “antioxidant” on food packages, supplements and in print almost daily.  But did you know your life actually depends on antioxidants?  Here is why.

In any discussion of antioxidants, the term “free radicals” pops up.   Free radicals are incomplete, highly unstable molecules that bodies produce.  Although they occur naturally, most are your enemy. These incomplete molecules are dangerous and are always looking to steal an electron from one of your stable vital cells.  This starts a destructive chain reaction of damage known as oxidation.  You may understand oxidation as an apple turning brown after being cut open or the rust that occurs on iron when it is exposed to air and moisture.  Oxidation damages your body much like this rusting process. Principle causes of oxidation are a nutrient poor diet, tobacco, stress, poor sleep, toxins, pollution, radiation and even intense exercise.

To some extent you need this oxidation in your body. However when your body’s balance between free radicals and antioxidants tilts in the wrong direction, healthy cells can be damaged leaving you open to degenerative diseases. Common results are damage to DNA and tissues, premature aging, atherosclerosis, degenerative eye diseases, cancer, dementia, joint diseases and more.

Good news!  Rushing to your aid are your “super hero” antioxidants.  Antioxidants are a wide variety of substances that work to deactivate free radical rusting in your body.  Think of these “super heroes” as being on a suicide mission.  They sacrifice themselves to stop rogue free radicals from taking their toll on your body.

There are thousands of different antioxidants but most can be classified into a handful of chemical families. All these families share the ability to sacrifice themselves to prevent harm to healthy body cells. Your two main sources of antioxidants are food and those your body produces.  High on the list of antioxidants to include in your diet would be beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, and vitamins A, C and E.

You can source beta-carotene from orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, carrots, cantaloupe and dark leafy greens.  You will find lutein in kale, spinach, broccoli, grapes, zucchini, leeks and corn.  Lycopene can be added with watermelon, apricots and tomatoes.  Selenium is in seafood, lean meats, Brazil nuts, brown rice and whole grains.  Eating eggs, liver, meat and dairy will supply you with vitamin A.   Citrus fruits, strawberries, cherries, bell peppers and broccoli deliver vitamin C.  Vitamin E can be added with wheat germ, nuts, olives, sunflower seeds, asparagus, and sweet potatoes.  These all sound like healthy choices, don’t they?

Science is still working to find out how antioxidants work in our complex bodies but experts agree that antioxidants are good for us.  Foods are your best sources for them but don’t allow yourself to become hung up on one particular food.  The best way is to make broad ranging healthy choices of fruits, vegetables and whole grains for your diet.  Remember, your life depends upon your antioxidant “super heroes”.

Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.