Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can bind to and destroy cells. We are exposed to free radicals from environmental toxins, and our body naturally makes them during energy production and when metabolizing toxins in the liver.
A healthy well-nourished balanced body has the ability to manage these free radicals. However, when we suffer from nutrient deficiencies and an overload of environmental toxins these free radicals can cause lasting damage to our cells leading to inflammation, accelerated aging and in some cases cancer. The good news is that we can protect ourselves from this damage by eating a diet rich in antioxidants and reducing our exposure to toxins.
Reduce Exposure to Free Radicals
Avoiding the following can reduce free radical exposure due to environmental toxins and lifestyle and food habits.
- X-rays and radiation
- Chemicals from cleaning products, paints and gasoline
- Pesticides found in all non-organic foods
- Hydrogenated oils found in margarine, shortening, fried foods such as French fries, and baked goods like cookies and breads
Eat Antioxidant Rich Foods
Antioxidants are compounds that “calm down” free radicals and protect against cellular damage. They inhibit oxidation and prevent cell deterioration. Our body makes a few antioxidants but mainly we get them from our food. Key antioxidants that prevent cellular damage are vitamin C and E, and the minerals selenium and zinc. To ensure you are getting a good dose of antioxidants eat the following foods on a daily basis.
Foods rich in…
- Vitamin C: Broccoli, kale, bell peppers, oranges and strawberries.
- Vitamin E: Chard, spinach, asparagus, sunflower seeds and almonds.
- Selenium: Whole grains such as barley and brown rice, and meat, fish and whole eggs.
- Zinc: Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, oats, buckwheat, potatoes and black beans.
- Other phytonutrients with antioxidant compounds: Flavonoids found in green tea, cocoa, and apples. Isoflavonoinds found in soy and legumes. Anthocyanidins found in dark red/purple colored fruits such as berries, cranberries and cherries. And, flavanones found in citrus fruit.
As you can see by this list many of the foods we eat everyday offer antioxidant protection. It is important to remember that although we can buy a vitamin C supplement at the store the vitamins and minerals we get from eating whole foods are more bioavailable and work more powerfully in our bodies. As Michael Pollan says, we cannot extract a nutrient from the whole food source and see it work as effectively in the body. Food contains many compounds that work synergistically to support our health.
I think the key is balance. Some exposure is unavoidable; we will all breath some gasoline fumes when filling up our car. However, we can minimize our exposure by choosing non-chemical cleaning products and avoiding foods that contain damaging compounds such as hydrogenated oils. Eating a whole foods diet rich with organic foods and eliminating processed packaged food will prevent damage to our bodies, leaving us with a feeling of ease knowing that we are giving ourselves the toxic free nutrients needed for a strong and healthy system.
Murray, M. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Food. New York: Atria Books.
Wood, R. (2010). The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. England: Penguin Books.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books.