If the body’s old cells are constantly being replaced with new cells, why do people get old? In 1956 a brilliant scientist proposed an answer—the Free Radical Theory of Aging. Free radicals are byproducts created when fuel and oxygen are burned within our cells to make energy. Basically, the free radical is a molecule that lost an electron in the process and is aggressively seeking to replace it. (This is referred to as oxidative stress.) If the electron is not replaced within a certain time, damage is done to the cell and its DNA. The accumulation of this damage ages the cell, as well as the replacement cell created with the damaged DNA. Besides aging, free radical harm is linked to chronic illness like heart disease and cancer.
Nature offers a solution to the free radical problem: Antioxidants in food supply the missing electron. Therefore, the theory posits, a diet rich in antioxidants will slow down the aging process. The ultimate expression of this is the girl who goes to her 50th high school reunion and looks young enough to be the daughter of the other people. They’ll hate you, but what could be more fun?
Natural foods are loaded with antioxidants. There are thousands of types of antioxidants, which suggests they each may have a unique function. The vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, and E are antioxidants. Minerals like selenium are potent antioxidants. Antioxidants have a function in plants also—they protect the plant from sunlight, a little like sunscreen. It is important, therefore, to eat the edible skins of plants. Because much of the mass is skin, the small, colorful berries are packed with antioxidants.
Research indicates that different food groups provide different kinds of antioxidants. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains each help, but in different ways. There also seems to be a synergistic effect: eating a variety of foods gives a greater protection than just the sum of the ingredients. There was unforeseen wisdom in the W of W guidance to eat from the varied herbs, fruits, and grains.
Besides the antioxidants in food, the body also produces antioxidants. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant and is produced when we sleep in the dark. If you don’t sleep in a dark room, you reduce the production of protective melatonin. Sometimes we think it a sign of our dedication if we get insufficient sleep—bad idea. Prolong your youthfulness with adequate sleep.
The allure of eternal youthfulness is behind the recent fad of taking vitamin E supplements. Scientists who encouraged this should have known better. Because there are so many thousands of different antioxidants, it was highly unlikely that taking a concentrated dose of one would be healthful. In fact, studies searching for a benefit from taking the antioxidant vitamins A, or C, or E in pill form, have each failed and some have found harm in this practice. (See, for example, “The Antioxidant Myth: a medical fairy tale”, by L. Melton, 2006.)
The Breakfast Compote recipe provides a fabulous mix of antioxidants from berries, apples, orange juice, dried cranberries, whole grains, ground flaxseed, and pecans. Salads, thanks to the synergy of variety, are also a good antioxidant source. Meals that are rich in natural foods of different colors and varied food groups, slow aging, protect health, and comply with our next healthy change:
In closing, a word about cancer: we noted above that free radical generation was linked to oxidative stress, which the body resolves with antioxidants. Studies have linked low levels of antioxidants to a greater risk for cancer, including breast cancer. For example a low blood level of vitamin A doubled the risk of breast cancer. Women with low vitamin E had triple the risk. In addition, elevated markers of oxidative stress are an independent risk factor for breast cancer. In our next post on Thursday, we will address the tragedy of breast cancer.
Please share what you do to provide adequate antioxidants in your diet.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.