Find your health on a plate

2014-06-05 00:00

LAST time we discussed how to boost the immune system as it wages war on bacteria and viruses compromising our health. Colds, flu and various degrees of sniffing and sneezing are already making their way through offices and homes in the city.

Antioxidants have caused a stir in health circles for many years, with many advocating high doses of various antioxidants to delay ageing, strengthen immune defences, and prevent a variety of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Free radicals

Anti-oxidants are nutrients found in food, and are also widely available in supplement form. The theory is that antioxidants reduce the oxidising damage caused by free radicals.

Free radicals are believed to break down cell membranes and damage the genetic material contained within the cell. This damage can be detrimental to health in a number of ways: it can change the instructions given by the cell’s genetic material, it can make circulating LDL cholesterol (also called bad cholesterol) more likely to get trapped in an artery wall, it can change the permeability of a cell altering what is allowed to enter and exit each cell.

We aren’t defenceless against free radicals. The body produces molecules that quench free radicals and we also extract free-radical fighters from food. These defenders are often lumped together under the term “antioxidants”.


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different substances that can act as antioxidants. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium and manganese. Other substances are glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols and phytoestrogens.

Anti-oxidants are not interchangeable, as each one has unique chemical behaviour and fulfils a slightly different role. No single nutrient can achieve the function of the whole group. During the nineties, scientists began to understand that free radical damage was involved in ageing, vision loss, cancer and many other chronic illnesses.

Some studies showed that people who had very low intakes of fruits and vegetables were at greater risk for developing chronic diseases than those who ate plenty antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Thus began myriad trials, and the development of a multitude of antioxidant supplements and additives.

The scientific results have been mixed, but most have not found the hoped-for benefits. Antioxidants are still added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, and they are promoted as additives that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and a host of other conditions.

Data from the studies are often distorted and misinterpreted. It is certainly true that the combination of antioxidants, minerals, fibre and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains assists in preventing a variety of chronic diseases; however, high doses of individual antioxidants have not been found to accomplish the same result. Abundant research shows the benefit of increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain intake — this provides not only antioxidants but a multitude of other minerals and substances that are essential for health.

The amount of antioxidants we consume in our daily meals is much lower than the quantities found in supplements. At these lower levels they safely provide a protective effect.

The old adage “everything in moderation” holds true yet again. Here are some ideas for increasing your natural antioxidant intake from food sources and ensuring optimal free-radical destruction.

• Choose a cup of rooibos tea instead of another coffee. Rooibos tea is high in a variety of antioxidant substances.

• Eat more brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, especially those with purple, red, blue, orange and yellow hues. Choose red and yellow peppers, beetroot, carrots, spinach and broccoli from the vegetable rack. Eat more pink grapefruit, mango, papaya, naartjie, prunes, raisins and cranberries throughout the day.

• Add garlic, onions, leeks and red onions to every possible meal. These foods pack a punch of flavour and are also protective against respiratory infections and bacterial overgrowth.

The bottom line of today’s message is to get your vitamins and antioxidants from your plate.

Vitamin supplements may be beneficial particularly in young children, the elderly and pregnant and lactating women. For the rest of the population, it would be wiser to spend money on purchasing healthy and wholesome foods.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietician. She can be contacted at

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