Staying Alive

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Oxidation:  Mitochondria produce energy by burning (or oxidizing) fuel called ATP.  (The cell makes ATP from the sugar delivered by your blood.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Antioxidants:  The missing electron can be supplied—and cell damage avoided—by the antioxidants in our diet.   
  6. Longevity:  If your diet supplies enough antioxidants, aging is significantly slowed.

Antioxidant Sources

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. 

Healthy Change: 

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.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change. 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 (4)

I love having smoothies for breakfast a couple of times a week. I use fresh fruit and berries when they are in season, but during these winter months I keep my freezer stocked with frozen blueberries, blackberries, peaches, mangoes, strawberries, pineapple, etc. I can mix them with nonfat milk, yogurt, or even just water for a great and filling breakfast. Depending on the flavor combination or my mood, I will throw in flax seed or a few cacao nibs, or even a handful for spinach (which doesn't alter the flavor).

I am always open to new ideas and ways to eat more whole foods. This blog has been a great help so far!

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelsi

We eat berries as a snack quite frequently. Definitely more during spring/summer when they are readily available (I'm trying to focus on buying produce when it's in season). I try to serve fruit only as our morning snack (two small kids) and berries are a great option because the kids will always eat them. I also serve them with breakfast, on the side at lunch, or in morning smoothies. Berries are so easy to incorporate into our diet because they are so tasty!

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

9 days out of 10 I start my day with a green smoothie. I start with a cup of liquid - water, coconut water, non-dairy milk substitute, or 100% juice. Then I throw in about a cup to a cup and a half of whatever frozen berries or fruit I have on hand, along with half a banana for sweetness. I top that with at least two cups of greens - spinach, kale, chard, cabbage, bok choy, parsley, cucumber, broccoli - any and all of it, depending on what's in my crisper. A few ice cubes and it's ready to blend (a vitamix is a must for the perfectly blended smoothie). Delicious! Often I'll throw in some hemp, chia, or flax seeds as well. Sometimes a scoop of protein powder. And I love Trader Joe's Super Green and Red Drink Powders to add even more antioxidants.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

We have green smoothies at least once a day. It's usually half leafy greens (spinach, kale, endive, whatever we have) blended with whatever frozen fruit we have, an orange and some carrot juice. Every one of my kids will drink this regardless of the color and I love that. I've also been reading the book "Green for Life" and she talks about how green smoothies are the ideal way for us to get our greens. People tend not to chew our food well enough since we are always in a rush these days and our stomach has a hard time breaking down greens without depleting our stomach acid. So having a high-power blender like a vitamix "pre-chew" our greens for us is a great way to go. Plus they're super fast to make and a good way to eat veggies without dips or dressing.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

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