The quick answer: To slow aging and protect against cancer and other chronic diseases, eat an antioxidant-rich diet of whole plant foods.
How We Age
If the cells of our bodies are constantly being replaced, why do we get old? It’s a good question. In 1956 a scientist brilliantly proposed that aging was primarily caused by free radicals. Here are the basic steps:
- Energy: Cells produce the energy needed for life in their mitochondria. Not all cells are equal: Heart muscle cells work hard so contain many mitochondria. Fat cells contain much less.
- Oxidation: Mitochondria produce energy by burning (or oxidizing) fuel called ATP. (The cell makes ATP from the sugar delivered by your blood.)
- Free radicals: During oxidation an electron is lost, which creates free radicals. If free radicals can’t replace the lost electron they become toxic to the DNA of your mitochondria.
- Aging: The accumulated damage from free radicals is a major part of aging. Free radicals are also a risk factor for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and age-related vision loss.
- Antioxidants: The missing electron can be supplied—and cell damage avoided—by the antioxidants in our diet.
- Longevity: If your diet supplies enough antioxidants, aging is significantly slowed.
Whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts) are a rich source of antioxidants. (Processed foods are not.) Antioxidants play a protective role in plants, protecting them against UV damage from the sun. There are many types of antioxidants and more are being discovered. Here are some common sources:
- Vitamins: The vitamins A, C and E are powerful antioxidants if taken in whole foods. Pills do not provide the same benefit and can even be harmful.
- Minerals: The minerals in food, like selenium, are antioxidants. (This may be why Brazil nuts, rich in selenium, are protective of prostate cancer.)
- Food: Different food groups produce different kinds of antioxidant so it’s a good idea to eat a varied diet. The skin of berries is loaded with antioxidants.
- Sleep: The body also produces antioxidants. Melatonin, produced when we sleep, is a potent antioxidant.
- Pills vs whole foods: Studies have failed to find a consistent benefit of taking antioxidants in pill form. Getting your antioxidants in whole foods, complete with other helper nutrients, is the safest answer. There is also a synergistic effect in eating a variety of whole foods.
The Modern American Diet (MAD)—Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods
What part of the American diet is whole foods vs. processed foods? It's not pretty to see, but here’s a breakdown provided from government sources:
- Processed foods: 62.5% of calories come from factory foods made from refined grains, refined oils, and sugar or HFCS.
- Animal products: 25% of calories come from meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
- Plant foods: Just 12.5% of calories come from whole plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, or nuts.
This is just a horseback estimate, but I would put the diet of someone following the 52 Healthy Changes from Word of Wisdom Living at something like this:
- Processed foods: 10-15% of calories.
- Animal products: 10-15% of calories.
- Whole plant foods: 75% of calories.
The latter diet—with 75% if calories from whole plant foods—provides a rich source of natural antioxidants, as well as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other helper nutrients.
Cancer: 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 other studies, elevated markers of oxidative stress are an independent risk factor for breast cancer. A whole foods diet rich in antioxidants protects against breast and other cancers.
Please comment: Please share what you do to provide adequate antioxidants in your diet.
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