Everyone has heard the news about antioxidants and their importance to good
health and proper nutrition. It seems the more scientists learn about
antioxidants, the more their value and potential increases. Antioxidants
have shown promise in everything from preventing heart disease to slowing
the degeneration of the eyes and brain.
Antioxidants work in a fairly straightforward way, what makes them so
effective is their ability to neutralize a group of highly reactive, highly
destructive compounds known as free radicals.
The production of free radicals is a normal bodily process, and it’s part of
the process of breathing and living. Free radicals are normally neutralized
by the body’s natural defense system, rendering them harmless. However,
anything that weakens the body’s natural defenses weakens its ability to
fight off these free radicals, those weakening agents include environmental
pollution, excess UV radiation and even excessive consumption of alcohol.
When free radicals are not properly neutralized, the body is left open to
illness. Free radicals can damage the structure and function of cells in the
body, and recent evidence suggest that free radicals contribute to the aging
process and may play a role in a great many illnesses, including cancer and
While vitamin supplements containing antioxidants such as vitamin C can be
important, there is no substitute for a healthy diet. It’s estimated that
foods contain more than 4,000 compounds that have antioxidant qualities so
eating a healthy diet is the only way to take advantage of these antioxidant
properties. In addition to the well known antioxidants like vitamin C and
vitamin E, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains also contain
a lot of lesser known antioxidants. Scientists are only now discovering the
important role these lesser known antioxidants have in keeping the body healthy.
Let’s take a look at some of the dietary sources for the major antioxidant
Vitamin C is probably the most studied of all the antioxidant vitamins. Also
known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin found in all bodily
fluids, and it’s thought to be one of body’s first lines of defense against
infection and disease. Since vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin, it is not
stored and must be consumed in adequate quantities every day. Good dietary
sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits,
green peppers, broccoli and other green leafy vegetables, strawberries, cabbage
Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver and other tissues.
Vitamin E has been studied for its effects on everything from delaying the aging
process to healing a sunburn. While vitamin E is not a miracle worker, it is an
important antioxidant, and it’s important that the diet contain sufficient amounts
of vitamin E. Good dietary sources of this important nutrient include wheat germ,
nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetable oil, fish liver oil and green leafy veggies.
Beta-carotene is the nutrient that gives flamingos their distinctive pink color
(they get it from the shrimp they eat). In the human world, beta-carotene is the
most widely studied of over 600 carotenoids that have thus far been discovered.
The role of beta-carotene in nature is to protect the skins of dark green, yellow
and orange fruits from the damaging effects of solar radiation. Scientists believe
that beta-carotene plays a similar protective role in the human body. Sources of
beta-carotene in the diet include such foods as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes,
broccoli, tomatoes, collard greens, kale, cantaloupe, peaches and apricots.
Selenium is one of the most important minerals in a healthy diet, and it has been
studied for its ability to prevent cell damage. Scientists see this ability to
protect cells from damage as possibly important in the prevention of cancer, and
selenium is being studied for possible cancer preventative properties. It is
important to get the selenium you need from your diet, since large doses of selenium
supplements can be toxic. Fortunately, selenium is easily found in a healthy diet.
Good sources of dietary selenium include fish and shellfish, red meat, whole grains,
poultry and eggs, and garlic. Vegetables grown in selenium rich soils are also good
sources of dietary selenium.