The Hemp Connection + vegetables

What the heck is an antioxidant? Ten important things to know

I recently started to tell a good friend about the antioxidant power of turmeric. He stopped me midsentence.

"What is it with all this antioxidant stuff? First it was pomegranates. Then it was Mongolian gojis. It's something different every day."

(Insert big sigh and eye roll here.)

"Can you even tell me what an antioxidant looks like?"

My friend's reaction verified something I've sensed for awhile now. In our quest to show how much we know about antioxidants, we've thrown long words and catch phrases at the public, to the point where the concept has become nothing more than hype.

It's not long after any concept hits"hype mode" that it becomes passe. And being passe is absolutely not what the average antioxidant should be, to ANYONE.

So, I'd like to answer my friend's question. My answer is somewhat long, but I will do my best to encourage him--and you--to see past the hype that's been flung at all those innocent pomegranates and beets and Indian curries!

Here are ten important things to know about antioxidants.

1. AN ANTIOXIDANT IS LIKE RUSTPROOF FOR YOUR BODY. Oxidation is the natural process of something breaking down over time. On your car, oxidation looks like rust. Oxidation in humans isn't much different; it's somewhat of a biological rusting out process. So an antioxidant, really, is human rustproofing.

2. AN ANTIOXIDANT SLOWS DOWN AGING. This is primarily a blog for women with PCOS. What does aging have to do with that? PCOS is a disease of inflammation, and inflammation is an aging process. If you stand back and look at the big picture, a lot of the symptoms of PCOS are actually indications of an accelerated aging process--arthritis, forgetfulness, poor sleep, diabetes at an early age, premature menopause--I am struck at how many of my clients really present as old people in young peoples' bodies. Just as there really is no cure for the wear and tear on the body of a car that works better than prevention, PCOS needs preventive action. It's about choosing food, activity and lifestyle behaviors that make it easier for your body to stay young. It IS possible to reverse some aging, but it's a whole lot easier to prevent aging before it happens. Making good antioxidant choices every day is an important part of your personal rustproofing plan (PRP).

3. DON'T JUDGE AN ANTIOXIDANT BY ITS SCRABBLE SCORE. This one drives me nuts. Nutritionists tend to be extremely detail oriented, and they seem to have adopted this compulsion to throw dozens of new long words at the public. I am equally as nerdy when it comes to biochemistry, but there is a place for those words. If seeing them in an article isn't inspiring you to put some new and different foods on your shopping list, what's the point?

I don't believe in dumbing down the public, but I have to admit, much of what I read has MY eyes glazing over because how the word was spelled or pronounced was apparently more important to the author than what's in it for me to care.

If you're adding a few beets at the salad bar or learning to cook Indian curries, that's what matters. The chemicals will help you to be healthier, whether or not you can spell or pronounce them.

4. THE BEST ANTIOXIDANTS ARE FOUND IN THEIR ORIGINAL PACKAGING. I graduated from college in 1982, and there were only a handful of antioxidants to learn about at the most. Back then (I guess you could say the nutritional dark ages!) we learned mostly about vitamins and minerals. Many of the compounds we knew about, were extracted and sold as"complete nutritional replacements". Of course, the definition of"complete" was based on our limited knowledge of what food actually contains. They weren't really complete because they did not contain the antioxidant compounds we didn't even know about!

That, for me, was a huge lesson learned, about how much of an expert I can truly be in this field. There will always be things I don't know, and need to know, and my responsibility as a health educator is to be as complete in talking about what I don't know as I do about what I do know.

Therefore, my advice when it comes to antioxidants and supplements, is not to focus on what the most important, most perfect antioxidant might be, then to extract it and consume it in large quantities. Rather, look for opportunities to eat whole foods that are as close to the ground and/or tree when you consume them. The more something is sliced, diced, extracted, powdered, concentrated, the less like nature it is.

Remember, whole is best. There may be important nutritional compounds we have yet to learn about that aren't in those expensive antioxidant supplements.

5. ANTIOXIDANTS ARE COLORFUL CHARACTERS. Your plate needs a variety of colors if it's also going to contain antioxidants. I created this graphic last summer to illustrate the concept. If you're eating lots of reds and blues, and are judicious about which white foods you choose, that's a good start. But remember the greens, yellows, and oranges, too! It's really not that hard to choose colorfully. A plate of food that contains a lot of colors is also attractive. Would you rather have a plate of white fish, cauliflower, and mashed potatoes, or a chicken salad packed with apples, walnuts, and spinach?

Eat patriotically--doesn't matter what country--if you put color on your plate, you can't go wrong.

6. ANTIOXIDANTS LOVE A GOOD PARTY! Antioxidants tend to be more effective in the presence of other antioxidants. In other words, you'll get more bang for your buck out of Compound A if you are also eating Compound B. That's why there is no such thing as the ultimate antioxidant. Just like you have less fun at a party if you act like a wallflower, your"health party" will be a whole lot more worthwhile if you introduce and mingle different compounds.

7. ANTIOXIDANTS LOVE THE GYM. Antioxidants have an interesting relationship with exercise. Exercise, because it raises metabolism, is actually an oxidative activity. However…when you exercise regularly, your body becomes more efficient at storing antioxidants for future use, and then mobilizing them to areas where exercise has raised your metabolism. To get the best advantage out of exercise, it's important to (1) not overexercise, but (2) exercise regularly, and (3) be sure the diet you eat on a regular basis is full of colorful foods.

8. ANTIOXIDANTS ARE HOMEBODIES. When fruits are picked early so they can be shipped to distant markets, they're not allowed to ripen and develop their fullest antioxidant potential. When fruits are processed so they can be stored and consumed through off-seasons, they lose antioxidant power. So while I love blueberries and I appreciate their antioxidant power, they are more of a summer treat for me. Since I live in Arizona, I try to eat lots of citrus in the winter, watermelon in the summer, and to use foods from other areas as occasional treats. Every locality has its specialties. Become familiar with what's in season in your area, and if you travel, experiment with local specialties. A Goji berry is definitely a powerful antioxidant tool, but you can be antioxidant friendly even if your plate was not partially picked by distant farmers on exotic hillsides. Some of your greatest antioxidant friends may be lurking just down the road at your local organic farm.

9. ANTIOXIDANTS SHOULD NOT BREAK YOUR BUDGET. When you eat seasonally, you should also save money. In fact, one of the easy way to know what fruits and vegetables are in season is to look for what is cheap! If you frequent your local farmer's market, what you see at the majority of the stands is likely the local seasonal offering. I like eating seasonally because foods move in and out of my menu and I don't get bored because I'm eating the same thing over and over again. Get to know how seasons affect food availability in your area, and plan menus around that. It is fun, not to mention tasty!

10. THE BEST ANTIOXIDANT OF ALL--IS A PROACTIVE LIFESTYLE. OK, here's a picture of an antioxidant. (A face only a molecule mother could love…) What it looks like isn't as important as what it does. An antioxidant keeps you healthy and young! Any choice you make that creates an imbalance--too much exercise and not enough rest, not enough sleep, an imbalanced diet, poor stress management--puts you at risk of antioxidant deficiency. If you're not making good lifestyle choices and assuming a supplement will absorb the imbalance, you're putting yourself at even greater risk. Be sure your diet has a lot of variety and color.

Even better, apply that mentality to the rest of your life.
--Create a social support network with a variety of personalities that encourage the best in you to come out, and who accept you for who you are without unrealistic expectations.
--Participate in a few different physical activities that allow muscles to rest while others work.
--Do things that make you laugh! (Yes, in a way, your favorite corny movie is an antioxidant!)
--Do something creative.

There are many kinds of antioxidants that have nothing to do with nutrition. Be sure your choices add up to move you in the direction of capitalizing on them, rather than putting you in a position where you need to supplement to reverse damage that didn't need to be done.

OK, good friend, I hope I answered your question and you made it to the end of this blog post without rolling those eyes again!

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What the heck is an antioxidant? Ten important things to know + vegetables