As a natural part of aging, the electron configuration of cells can become destabilized periodically. This process can be accelerated by dietary and lifestyle factors such as exposure to radiation, air pollution, and toxins, excessive exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and the consumption of fried foods, high glycemic foods, and excessive polyunsaturated fats. Free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species, are formed when a pair of electrons in an atom of a cell loses one of its electrons, causing it to desperately want to grab onto another electron. As a result, this damaged atom can suck electrons off of a neighboring atom, thus damaging cellular DNA. Free radicals may contribute to risk of chronic disease and cancers. However, a relatively low level of free radicals is necessary for certain biological processes such as immune function, muscle contraction, and drug detoxification.
Antioxidants are compounds that can readily donate an electron to these damaged cells, thus restoring stability. Major food sources of antioxidants include Vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and flavonoids. Yellow peppers, kale, kiwis, citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, papayas, broccoli, brussel sprouts, black currants, thyme, and parsley are just a few rich sources of Vitamin C. Vitamin E can be found in nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables, to name a few sources. Beta-carotene is a specific form of Vitamin A that is found in carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, kale, cabbage, and spinach. Flavonoids are an important class of compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, tea, and wine.
It is not only what you eat, but also how your food is made, stored, and prepared that can affect the antioxidant properties of those foods. For example, nuts are a good source of Vitamin E, but they also contain reactive polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids can oxidize, forming free radicals, if left exposed to the air for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, nuts should be bought whole and in the shell when possible. Another way to reduce exposure is to avoid reusing cooking oils, as oils oxidize at high temperatures. On the other hand, certain preparation methods can increase antioxidant activity. For example, fermentation has been shown to enhance the antioxidant properties of vegetables and other foods. A 2014 study, published in the journal Nutrients, demonstrated that fermentation could enhance the ability of fruits and vegetables, among other foods, to repair free radicals.
For more on the types of foods we should be eating and their health benefits, dive into The PER4MANCE Program with Tracy for nutritional courses led by Dr. Drew Ramsey and health coach Nadia Ernestus.