“We’ve all heard of antioxidants. It seems like they are in everything from vitamin water, to fruit snacks, to shampoo these days! But what do they actually do?” asks Romi Pattison, Registered Dietitian at Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital. She explains, “In our body, oxidation occurs through normal body processes: when we breathe, when we eat and digest nutrients, and we are exposed to oxidation in the environment such as from pollution. Oxidation produces free radicals which are unstable molecules that can cause cell damage. Antioxidants protect our bodies from cell damage by stabilizing free radicals before they cause harm.”
Studies show that oxidative stress can contribute to the growth and spread of tumors, the progression of heart disease, and contribute to the overall aging process. Antioxidants may decrease the risk of certain types of cancers, may be used as part of cancer treatment, and are thought to improve the immune system, improve eye health and decrease the risk of cataracts.
Antioxidants include several vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are what give plants their colors. For example, the red in tomatoes, the green in spinach, the blue in blueberries, the orange in sweet potatoes, and even the white in cauliflower, all come from different phytonutrients. Vitamin C is the most common vitamin antioxidant; it is found in many fruits and vegetables.
Romi adds, “In general, taking mega doses of antioxidants isn’t necessary. Eating a varied diet rich in brightly colored, whole fruits and vegetables should meet our antioxidant needs. An easy reminder to vary your fruits and vegetables is the phrase ‘Eat the Rainbow.’ Get children involved in picking fruits and vegetables by having them make an ‘Eat the Rainbow’ shopping list! Have them draw fruits and vegetables from each color of the rainbow that they like, or would like to try.”
Here are some tips to boost your antioxidant intake:
- Add blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries to your cereal or yogurt
- Keep whole or sliced fruit, such as oranges, cantaloupe, and kiwi, handy for snacks
- Store sliced bell peppers and broccoli on the top shelf in your fridge for easy visibility
- Add squash or sweet potatoes to mashed potatoes for a more colorful dish
- Add blueberries and walnuts, or strawberries and pecans to spinach salads
- Mix baked sweet potato fries and regular baked fries to make "tiger fries"
For additional nutrition tips access Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital’s website (pdcmh.org) and search the health information library or contact the Nutrition Services Department at 608.357.2000.