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What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants. You hear the term all the time but what does it mean? The word sounds so important, so sciency and there is, of course, science involved.
A Mouthful of Science: Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) - What Is It?
In a number of Dr. Gourmet articles I have talked about various foods that are high in antioxidants. Understanding antioxidants and oxidation can be a bit challenging and we get mail from readers asking about just what this means.
Eat Healthy to Avoid Skin Cancer
Cancer is caused by a multitude of factors, but one that we're sure of is cellular damage through oxidation. High levels of sun exposure causes this oxidative damage to skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer. On the other hand, we also know that anti-oxidants in the diet, like vitamins C and E, can help reduce this damage.
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It has been well established that eating vegetables and fruits (VF) has many health benefits. Most research indicates that it is the antioxidant properties that are responsible for their positive effects. Some of the most widely studied have been ingredients from specific botanical families, including the cabbage family, the lily family (garlic), citrus (such as oranges) and the family that includes tomatoes.
Henry Thompson and his colleagues at the American Institute for Cancer Research have shown that eating more servings of VF does result in a reduction of blood markers of oxidation. They were curious whether by eating a diet containing a more diverse make up of vegetables and fruits would be more effective than one made up of more narrow choices (J Nutr 2006; 136(8): 2207 - 2212).
Their research divided 111 women into two diet plans. One half of the participants would eat vegetables and fruits from 18 different families. The other group followed a plan that included only VF from eight families. Both diets were designed to provide 8 to 10 servings of VF per day. The diets were formulated to provide similar amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrate and participants were asked to follow the diet for 14 days.
The markers studied were chemicals that are associated with oxidation of lipids (fats like cholesterol) and DNA (genetic material). The results somewhat surprised the researchers. Past research had been done with VF from groups known to be high in antioxidants. They chose from these established VF families for the more narrow diet in their study. Because the foods chosen for the more narrow diet were known to be high in antioxidants, they had felt that the diet with less diversity would be more effective than that of higher diversity.
There was a statistically significant reduction in the marker of DNA oxidation only in the more varied diet, however. This is important because higher levels of DNA oxidation might result in genetic damage. There was a similar statistically significant reduction in lipid oxidation, but this was found to be the case in both diet plans.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that the higher the participants markers of oxidation before the change in diet the more effective the diets were in reducing oxidation.
Your mom was right - eat your veggies (and fruit). It's probably best to eat a wide variety, however. Pick up something new at the market each time you go and experiment with it. Fill your fridge with apples, oranges, pineapple, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, parsnips, cucumbers and on and on.
First posted: August 1, 2006