Antioxidants are like warriors in your body, fighting against free radicals and oxidative stress. While not a new topic, antioxidants are often misunderstood and underappreciated. This time of year, as we are exposed to armies of bacteria and viruses, it is worth exploring the functions, benefits and food sources of these little powerhouses.
Let’s start by understanding what they do. Natural body functions, such as breathing and physical activity, as well as exposure to cigarette smoke or pollution, produce substances called free radicals that attack healthy cells. Stress and infections, from bacteria and viruses, cause additional free radical formation. Antioxidants help protect healthy cells from the damage, or oxidative stress, caused by these free radicals. Oxidative stress and free radicals lead to atherosclerosis, heart disease and cancer, and appear to contribute to the development of diabetes, dementia, arthritis, eye diseases, and aging processes.
Benefits of antioxidants include their ability to protect us against chronic disease, infection, and cognitive decline, to name just a few. What is important to understand is that we can, and should, get plenty of these warriors from natural food sources, not supplements. Studies have shown antioxidant supplements increase health risks and interact with certain medications. Supplements can also give you too much of a concentrated source of one or more antioxidants while neglecting others. Most importantly, there are many other compounds in foods that improve both the absorption and function of antioxidants, compounds that cannot be replicated in supplements. So, beware supplements and head for the market.
Food sources of antioxidants are abundant. An overarching rule of thumb, if you want to skip the details, is to eat 2 cups of fruits and 2 ½ cups of vegetables daily to reap the benefits. Specific antioxidants in fruits and vegetables include vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. Try the following sources!
Additional food sources of antioxidants include nuts, coffee, tea, wine and dark chocolate (my other favorite food groups). They contain a list of antioxidants too long for this story (resveratrol, polyphenols, catechins and flavonols, for example) but what’s important is the food themselves. Try a variety of each but go easy on the wine and chocolate; they do not contain the significant amounts found in the other foods and drinks mentioned here, and consuming these daily not only adds calories but replaces the more beneficial sources.
No one individual antioxidant can do everything, so be sure to get a variety of foods, of all colors, from all food groups. Enjoy the pleasures of eating while your warriors do all the work.
As published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
If you often feel tired or run down despite getting adequate sleep, it’s time to consider the possibility of iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, and one that is fairly easy to diagnose and treat. But do not reach for an iron supplement just yet; self-diagnosis and treatment are seldom a good idea, especially when it comes to iron.
Iron is an important part of hemoglobin in red blood cells and myoglobin in muscle tissue, essential for the transport and storage of oxygen. If you do not have enough iron in your body, cells will not get enough oxygen, causing iron deficiency and leaving you feeling exhausted, weak and irritable. Other common symptoms of iron deficiency include dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, restless leg syndrome, paleness, unusual cravings, hair loss, and/or decreased physical abilities, such as reduced exercise capacity. These symptoms could be the result of something other than iron deficiency, though, so an accurate diagnosis is important.
Diagnosis of iron deficiency can be done with a simple blood test. Low serum ferritin, the storage form of iron, indicates the beginning stage of iron deficiency, and can cause symptoms even with a normal hemoglobin level. A low hemoglobin level reflects a later stage of iron deficiency and possibly anemia.
Treatment of iron deficiency depends on its severity. With extreme symptoms and low hemoglobin, an iron supplement is usually the best solution. Purchase one over the counter, checking the label to be sure it contains only 100% of the RDA (8-18 mg for women and 8-11 mg for men, depending on age). Do not continue taking it indefinitely, as excess iron can be harmful, increasing your risk for heart attack, diabetes and cancer. A good rule of thumb is to take a daily iron supplement for three months and then have your blood tests repeated; if iron stores are still low, repeat the process.
Treatment for low ferritin, and a sustainable approach to prevent future deficiency, is to improve the quality of your diet. Iron-rich foods should be on the menu daily. These include lean meat, poultry, seafood (especially cooked oysters), beans, lentils and tofu as well as dark leafy greens and fortified cereal. Be sure to include a food source of vitamin C with your iron sources, as vitamin C helps with iron absorption. Good food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, broccoli and tomatoes.
Knowing your risk of iron deficiency can help you be even more motivated to eat an iron- healthy diet. Individuals with digestive issues (such as celiac or inflammatory bowel disease), cancer or heart failure are all at increased risk, as are pregnant women, women with heavy periods, vegetarians and ultra-endurance athletes. If any of these describe you, talk to a dietitian to optimize your diet and wellbeing.
Dementia runs in my family, and many of us have seen dementia effect both friends and celebrities. According to the National Institutes of Health, dementia describes a collection of symptoms that can be caused by various disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include impairment of memory, language, thinking, judgment and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and metabolic disorders are among several types of diseases that cause dementia. I don’t know about you, but I don’t just want a long life, I want a high quality long life, so I am always watchful for research on nutrition to keep my brain healthy and alert. Fortunately, scientists have uncovered dietary patterns that are associated with lowered risk of age-related dementia. Add these brain-healthy food groups if they are not already a part of your regular diet.
Green leafy vegetables include spinach, kale, collards, lettuce and other greens such as beet tops. Aim for a serving almost every day - not that difficult if you make a simple salad or green smoothie daily.
Other vegetables, such as peppers, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beets, and broccoli, just to name a few, are high in antioxidants that protect against deterioration and damage to cells. It is very likely that the combination of antioxidants and other factors found in the vegetables contribute to their health benefits, so opt for the real food rather than a supplement.
Nuts offer protein and fiber to stabilize blood sugar, important for avoiding the cognitive decline found in people with impaired glucose tolerance. Other beneficial nutrients include the selenium in Brazil nuts, the alpha linolenic acid and polyphenols in walnuts, and antioxidants in almonds. Snack on a different kind every day and you will increase your odds of getting the brain boost you need.
Berries are the fruit of choice for brain health. Healthy adults have shown improved scores on word recognition, spatial memory and accuracy with blueberries and strawberries. Enjoy daily, and for the most benefit, mix it up with blackberries, raspberries and cranberries.
Legumes are high in both protein and fiber, but it is likely their phytochemicals and B vitamins that enhance your brain power, making them an all-around wonder food. Choose red, kidney, pinto, black, and garbanzo beans along with lentils, and peas; eat one serving three times a week.
Fish are a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids, and eating just one serving per week has been found to significantly lower one’s risk of dementia. Enjoy fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, arctic char, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, black cod, and anchovies.
Poultry, including turkey, chicken and eggs, are high in choline, a neurotransmitter important for brain communication.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin, is high in monounsaturated fat and antioxidants, both protective of the brain. In a classic study of adults in Spain, those who ate olive oil daily had less cognitive impairment (and even some improvement) compared to those on a low fat diet.
While important, diet is not the only influence on the brain. Having a greater purpose in life, maintaining a social network, and being physically active are all critical components of a healthy lifestyle that means better quality, not just quantity, of the years ahead.
As published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Use your search engine or explore a local bookstore, and you’ll find a wide variety of anti-inflammatory diet books. This eating approach is promoted to reduce everything from heart disease to asthma, and often requires you to make drastic changes in your eating pattern. What if you could make a few easy modifications that had a significant impact to your health?
It is helpful to understand inflammation and its effects in your body. Inflammation occurs as a protective response to injury; this is a normal immune response and part of our healing process. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation occurs when the response continues and begins damaging healthy tissues, arteries, or joints, and can result in increased risk for health issues such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer, digestive disease, lupus, and cardiovascular disease. There is also current research supporting the idea that inflammation of the brain contributes to plaque buildup and memory problems, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Lifestyle factors that can aggravate inflammation include high blood pressure, excess weight, stress, smoking, and of course, diet. An anti-inflammatory diet, or nutrition plan, consists of whole foods high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, and beneficial fats. Here is what it should include:
It is also important to reduce dietary factors that make inflammation worse. These include refined carbohydrates, added sugars, sodium, trans fats, saturated fats, processed meat, and omega 6 fats found in vegetable oils, salad dressings and processed foods.
So, about those few easy changes I mentioned earlier.
Try a simple change each week and eventually you’ll be eating an anti-inflammatory diet!
As seen in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND
is a nutrition educator with over 20 years experience as a college professor, nutrition coach, presenter and writer, as well as a nutrition consultant and founding director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.