Antioxidants are substances or nutrients in our foods which can slow down the oxidative damage to our body. Oxidative damage (oxidants) is caused when our body cells use and absorb oxygen. Free radicals are the by-products of oxygen use and antioxidants prevent and repair damage done by these free radicals. These free radicals are known to cause health problems such as cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration, diabetes, etc. by slowly attacking the cells. They also damage the cells in our body that are important for a youthful look and that is why you see antioxidants in cosmetic and grooming products as well.

These free radicals are introduced in a variety of ways including exposure to the sun or pollution, internal stress, as well as the diet. Alcoholic beverages, unhealthy foods, and cigarette smoke all contain them.

Now that we know the importance of antioxidants to combat cellular damage let’s find out the best sources to get them. The media is full of news about new studies pointing out the foods combating various chronic ailments by their super antioxidant properties. Pistachios, berries and pomegranates have been recent discoveries. In fact the study of antioxidant sources is one of the hottest, most publicized areas in current nutrition research. Most fruits and vegetables have antioxidants and many of these studies are exaggerated and funded by associations which want to promote that particular food. For example the wine associations will promote the antioxidant value of their red wine or almond grower associations will fund a study of the antioxidant properties of almond oil.

But there is an “antioxidant team” consisting of vitamins, carotenoids and the trace mineral selenium that work to protect the body from free radical damage that you shold know well. Here is the team and the best source to get them:

Vitamin C – this popular vitamin known to fend off colds has many immune boosting antioxidants. Citrus fuits such as sweet lime and oranges are well known source but there are many others. Capsicum, other bell peppers, strawberries, cabbage, guava, amla and tomatoes are high in vitamin C.

Vitamin A — is found in three main forms: retinol, didehydroretinol, and 3-hydroxy-retinol. These many sound familiar as they are found in anti-aging creams and moisturizers. But the best way to get vitamin A is through foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, oranges, mangoes, guava, papaya, milk, paneer, curds, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese, nuts, fruit and seeds.

Vitamin E — is found in many oils including wheat germ, safflower, corn and soybean oils, and also found in mangoes, guavas, nuts(especially almonds), fruits, seeds, broccoli, parval, and other fruits and vegetables.

Beta Carotene – is a member of the cartenoids family. Carotenoids work with vitamin C and E in the body to protect free radical damage. They are found in many foods that are orange in color, including sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, strawberries, pumpkin, figs, oranges, papaya, water melon, sweet lime, carrots, parval and mangoes. Some green leafy vegetables including spinach, methi(fenugreek plant), and sarson(mustard plant) are also rich in beta-carotene.

Lycopene – some vitamin tablets are sold with extra lycopene because of studies that found lycopene to ward off certain diseases. This potent carotenoid antioxidant can be found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, chikoo, figs, apricots, oranges and other foods.

Lutein – this carotenoid is plentiful in green, leafy vegetables sarson(mustard plant), methi, black jamun and spinach. It is associated with healthy eyes.

Selenium – is a trace mineral found in the soil in varying amounts. It functions as part of an antioxidant enzyme system that defends preventing the body in forming free radicals. Research is currently underway to find the role of selenium against the development of some forms of cancer. Plant foods like rice and wheat, nuts and fruits, seeds and garlic are the major dietary sources of selenium. The amount of selenium depends on the soil and the food grown on that soil. Also animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of this mineral their muscle.

Antioxidant supplements are a subject of heated debate within the scientific community. Some advocate enriching foods with antioxidants, others prescribe vitamin supplements and some believe getting all the nutrients from a natural diet.

Our basic Indian diet with vegetables, pulses, curds and cereals is healthy but sometimes it is not possible to get the needed nutrition on a daily basis and supplements may be necessary. Strive for 6 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Eat green leafy vegetables 4-5 times a week and eat fruits that give you vitamin C including oranges and guavas and check with your nutritionist if your diet regularly supplies the antioxidants your body needs to sufficiently fight free radical damage.

Published in Marie Claire, January 2011

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