Aging With Grace

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 AgingFree 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.

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Reader Comments (22)

I've found that by eliminating as many animal products as I can from my diet, it is now much more full of antioxidants. (Not that it couldn't be with animal products, it just happens to be what I do.) I've replaced dairy with almond milk--vitamin E. I eat tons of salads full of different veggies and fruits. In the morning I drink a powdered greens drink that has wheat and barley grass, spirulina, acai, goji berries, and other veggies and fruit. I make smoothies sometimes with the powder and add fresh and frozen fruit. If I had a juicer or a Vitamix, I wouldn't buy the powder, but for now it's working for me. Every morning on my oatmeal, I have ground flaxseed and chia seeds. With all of this, I hope I'm getting my daily max! :)

Came back to add that we also eat a lot of Indian food that is full of spices with antioxidants in them like tumeric, cloves, cinnamon, etc. Also, dates. We eat a lot of dates on our oatmeal in the morning. They are one of the best dried fruits for antioxidants and fiber.

I am so in love with your blog. The information you provide is amazing. I appreciate that you don't do it in a know-it-all or pushy way. You provide the facts and then I get to decide how to start implementing them into my life. Thank you so much. I am such a follower. I look forward to each new post filled with wonderful information.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterashley

Thanks for this Skip. I am right now eating a salad with spinich & leaf lettuce, raisins, dried cranberries, grapes, apples, pecans & feta cheese.

We do green smoothies in the morning with the kids (they really can't even taste the spinach anymore) and add plenty of frozen berries.

Happy eating everyone!

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee

This is a side question that has been on my mind as of late and I would love to hear what you think about this. My friend doesn't eat berries because they are too expensive when they are organic. She will only eat fruit now that is ONLY organic and she can only afford certain organic fruits. I think that it is better to eat a non organic berry than no berries at all. Does this sound like a ridiculous question? :) What are your thoughts on this?

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartha

Martha, the tragedy of your question is we have two kinds of fruit in our stores: organic (OK to eat) and non-organic (scary to eat). I concur with you, better to eat the regular fruit than to eat none. There are several guides suggesting which fruits are best eaten organic, like strawberries, raspberries and the cultivated blueberries.
I have a theory with no basis in fact that goes like this: God saw our day and gave the Word of Wisdom as a dietary guide to protect. So eat the recommended foods in the best form you can get them and trust in the protective power of the nutrients therein. Helps me to sleep better.

March 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

You touched on this in your post, but I find that when I have lots of COLORS on the table, we are probably getting a better variety of nutrients. When I look at the spread I put out and see that everything is beige (chicken, rice, cauliflower, pears--this has actually happened), I know I could be doing better. Different colors indicate different nutrients and a better variety.

I just have to say, I am really enjoying your blog Skip! Every week I find a manageable reminder of how I can do things better. (I've been better lately at drinking more water each day :) Thank you.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I've been following your blog from its beginning and am thoroughly enjoying it. I'm happy to say I've been fine tuning my (already healthy) diet based on the information you've provided here. Muesli is now part of our breakfast rotation and I've got my eye on the compote recipe. Thanks ~

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

Hey Mr. Hellewell it's me Caleb! I'm sure you don't remember me but I'm in your son's class and I was there when you taught. Anyways you told me to come here and check it out, so I did and I have to say this is so awesome! I love it and have already learned some stuff. I also enjoyed your lesson! I will certainly be coming here frequently!
Thank you,

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCaleb

I try to eat whole organic fresh fruit daily, but in the Pacific Northwest this isn't always the easiest feat. A couple things we do in my household:
1) Buy organic berries in the summer at the farmers market and freeze. Then add to steel cut oats, baked goods or smoothies in the winter.
2) Always keep a couple bottles of POM Juice in the frig. Yes, its expensive, but it only takes 2 ounces (2 big sips) a day to get your daily A, C and E intake. A bottle can last both my husband and me a whole week of sipping. A great after work treat if you know you skipped that healthy lunch.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterholly j

Steamed broccoli and spinach is the best! I could eat it every night (and almost do). I try to always keep a good stock in the fridge to quickly cook up when i get home for dinner.
Grow your own berries they are so good and so fresh!

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremma

How could I replace berries living in a tropical country where they are either too hard to find or too expensive to buy?
Thanks for the wonderful tips!

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel

Isabel, where do you live?

March 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

In Brazil.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel

Isabel, I remember you, nice to have a reader in Brazil. When I was young I spent a few years in Central America so I have a memory of the wonderful fruits of that region. You likely have lots of fruit in Brazil also. Anitoxidants are found in all forms of whole foods and each type seems to have a unique purpose. The science seems to encourage a varied diet of foods eaten as close to their natural state as practical. There's lots more to this than the berries, though they do get a lot of attention. Best to you.

March 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Wonderful blog...keep it up! :)

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

That's true, we are pretty lucky here, there are many different and delicious fruits. So I will just enjoy them instead of looking for berries! Good to hear you have been in Central America, all tropical countries offer lots of fruits. Best to you.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel

How do dried fruit and berries compare to fresh or frozen? As I have said before, I live in the northern hemisphere, and while the supermarkets will provide fresh anything year round berries and fruit (except for apples, citrus fruits and occationally pears) are quite costly during the winter as they need to be imported. I have therefore been toying with the idea of drying berries as a way of preserving them as my freezer is rather small. I have already had very good results in drying apples and mushrooms.

March 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

Mims, always good to hear from you. A small freezer makes prioritization of space usage important. The science I see would support eating fresh, frozen and dried, in that order. The cost of food is a big issue for nearly everyone—just do the best you can. The flip of this is that the very wealthy can buy whatever they want—usually by eating out or getting take out—but I think they eat the worst because they don't have to be involved with shopping and cooking and there is no limit on treats. The provident poor can actually eat better than the very rich.

March 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Hi Skip, I love berries, but many are high in pesticides. Are you familiar with the "Dirty Dozen" from the Environmental Working Group? Here is a general question: is it better to risk the pesticide exposure, get the vitamins and eat a conventional fruit or veggie? Or do the risks outweigh the benefits? I am especially curious about this when feeding my children. Should they avoid peaches because they are the WORST for pesticides? Have you seen any specific research on this topic?

Thanks for your fabulous blog!

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

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