How Antioxidants Can Save Your Life

Live Right Live Well: Food
Compelling evidence shows that a diet rich in antioxidants can reduce your risk of life-threatening diseases

W"ant to cut your risk of cancer in half? Want to substantially reduce your chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke? Want to live a longer, healthier life? The answer is simple: Eat more fruits and vegetables. At this point, you’re probably rolling your eyes, thinking “Been there! Done that!” But before you do, ask yourself how many servings of fruits and vegetables you ate yesterday. Multiple studies show that -- despite a mountain of scientific evidence supporting a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and despite years of listening to top experts (not to mention moms) telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables -- the typical American still eats a measly three servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And if you rule out french fries, which are so high in fat they hardly count, most people are down to two servings. This falls far short of the five servings a day experts keep harping about. To make matters worse, five is actually a minimum recommendation. For optimal health, experts say we should be striving for seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day!

So now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, okay, I get it. I should eat more fruits and vegetables. So which fruits and vegetables should I eat?” Again, the answer is astoundingly simple: All of them! The primary reason fruits and vegetables are so good for you is that they contain antioxidants -- vital nutrients that combat the oxidative damage that leads to deadly diseases. Perhaps you’ve heard about the wonders of lycopene or selenium or glutathione? Well, they’re all antioxidants. And “the foods richest in antioxidants are vegetables and fruits, which is why plant foods are so important,” says Dean Ornish, M.D., of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif.

Why Antioxidants Are so Good for You
“Oxi” refers to oxygen, which is absolutely essential for life. But oxygen also has a nasty downside. Normal physiological processes -- everything from breathing to digesting food to working out at the gym -- plus factors like smoking, alcohol abuse and a diet high in animal fat, turn some of the body’s chemically stable oxygen molecules into highly reactive oxygen ions. Also called oxygen radicals or free radicals, these ions cause microscopic injuries to your arteries, which trigger the formation of deposits. Over several decades, these deposits narrow your arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke, explains Dr. Ornish. Oxygen ions also damage DNA, the molecules that govern your genes. Over time, DNA damage manifests as cancer.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to minimize oxidative damage. Antioxidant vitamins, minerals and other nutrients neutralize oxygen ions, halting and repairing the damage they cause. Supplements are one way to get these crucial nutrients. But antioxidants are more readily available -- not to mention cheaper, tastier and more effective -- when consumed in food.

A Mountain of Evidence
Study upon study shows that as vegetable and fruit consumption increases, risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and other serious conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease, decreases. Some of the most compelling evidence:

  • Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley reviewed 250 studies correlating diet and cancer risk. Overall, those who ate the most vegetables and fruits had 50 percent lower risk of cancer compared to those who ate the least.
  • Italian researchers urged 11,000 heart attack survivors to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet -- more vegetables and fruits; less meat, butter, cheese, fast food and junk food. Some did, others did not. Six years later, those who switched cut their risk of dying from all causes by 49 percent compared to those who did not change their diets.
  • Dr. Ornish’s research has shown that a diet based on vegetables and fruits can actually reverse heart disease, producing better results than drugs, angioplasty or bypass surgery -- and at much lower cost.

The Best of the Bunch
So the next time you’re at the supermarket, spend some quality time in the produce section. All fruits and vegetables count toward the five-to-nine-a-day goal, and eating a variety is best. But if you’re dying to know which ones offer the biggest disease-fighting punch, here are the top 36 antioxidant-rich plant foods:

Can’t be beat Prunes (dried plums), raisins, blueberries, blackberries, artichokes

Extremely good Garlic, kale, cranberries, strawberries, spinach, brussels sprouts, raspberries

Very good Plums, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, radish, leek, beets, red pepper, onion, corn, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce

Don’t discount these, they’re good for you, too Asparagus, green peppers, yellow peppers, squash, tomatoes, beets, oranges, cherries, kiwifruits, baked beans

So have some fruit with breakfast. Have generous helpings of vegetables at lunch and dinner. Snack on fruit between meals and have fruit for dessert! Says Amy Lanou, Ph.D., assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina, Asheville: “For optimal health, a plant-based diet is the way to go. The more vegetables and fruits you eat, the better!”

Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web.

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