FREE RADICALS, ANTIOXIDANTS, & PHYTONUTRIENTS
*This may get a bit science-y but don’t worry it will make sense in the end*
First, let’s start with the basics, what is a free radical?
A free radical is an uncharged molecule (typically highly reactive and short-lived) having an unpaired valence electron.
What forms free radicals?
The formation of free radicals can be caused by the toxic things that we consume. This includes fried foods, alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, air pollutants, and much more. One that is commonly forgotten is chronic inflammation. This can be caused by lifestyle habits such as sedentary behavior and poor diet.
What do they do?
Free radicals cause damage to parts of cells such as proteins, DNA, and cell membranes by stealing their electrons through oxidation giving them an odd/ unpaired number of electrons. (This is why free radical damage is also called “oxidative damage.”) They can cause immune problems, diabetes, cancers, and coronary artery disease.
What is an antioxidant?
An antioxidant is a substance that contains the property to inhibit oxidation, especially from processed foods. Basically, the direct natural remedy to free radicals.
What nutrients are involved in antioxidant functions?
Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and selenium are commonly recognized.
But how exactly do antioxidants reduce free radical damage?
Antioxidants terminate the chain reaction caused by the free radicals before vital molecules are damaged. They directly neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron-"stealing" reaction. Vitamin C and E are the most popular for fighting this damage.
This is why they are popular for immune strength!
*The antioxidant nutrients themselves don’t become free radicals by donating an electron because they are stable in either form
Which nutrients function directly as antioxidants and which one is a necessary component of an antioxidant system?
Although there are several enzyme systems within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principle micronutrient (vitamins) antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Also, selenium, a trace metal is required for proper function of one of the body's antioxidant enzyme systems. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients so they must be supplied in the diet.
Should I take a supplement?
No! A significant amount of evidence has been found to support that taking a supplement does not carry the same benefits as consuming a food with antioxidant properties. Not to mention, excessive supplementation has been actually linked with health risks! However, the research HAS shown that consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will provide preventative and protective benefits from the antioxidant properties present.
What foods are high in antioxidants?
The easiest way to find which foods are the highest, are those plants with the brightest colors! Deep colored berries, pomegranate seeds, red wine (grapes), goji berries, bright green and yellow vegetables, and dark chocolate are just a few.
What are phytochemicals/ phytonutrients?
Phytochemicals are natural chemicals that can be found in plants that help protect the plants from germs, fungi, bugs etc. They can be found in the most colorful vegetables and legumes. Examples of Phytonutrients include Carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, indoles, lignans, and isoflavones. Each phytonutrient offers different effects on the body, which is why a colorful, varied diet is preferred.
What is their role in your body’s health?
Phytonutrients have many benefits, including; reducing inflammation, blocking carcinogens, and preventing chronic diseases. Although they are not essential to life, they still have plenty of life altering benefits.
How are they different from vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals can be added to foods in order to enrich them which you can only get phytochemicals from the direct unprocessed plant source. Vitamins and minerals are also essential to the daily diet while phytonutrients are not. However, as they have shown protection against chronic noncommunicable diseases, they should be.
How does the concept of variety influence phytochemical intake?
There are different phytonutrients in different fruits and vegetables that all have different jobs, so in order to get them you need to consume a variety of different plants. The most colorful tend to have the highest variety of phytonutrients. Note that phytochemical composition may change with cooking and handling so always include some raw foods in your diet!\
Eat a colorful diet high in fruits and veg for their protective qualities against pollution and free radical formation!
"The phytochemicals may stimulate the immune system, slow the growth rate of cancer cells, and prevent DNA damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases as described in the following section suggesting that many phytochemicals are antioxidants protecting the cells of the body from oxidative damage from water, food, and the air. Eating a balanced diet which includes whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables provides the body with phytochemicals"
Singh, R. B., Watson, R. R., & Takahashi, T. (2019). 12- Role of Food and Nutrition in Cancer. In The role of functional food security in global health (pp. 193-203). London, United Kingdom: Academic Press.