If that sounds like a call to free dangerous things from containment, it is. But maybe not in the way you think. Free radicals are a group of atoms in our bodies that are unstable and highly reactive, usually caused by a poor diet, lots of stress, smoking, too much alcohol, lack of exercise, inflammation, prescription drugs or exposure to pollutants. Or, for some people, the entire list.
These free radicals can bring on all sorts of ailments through inflammation and cell damage.
The way we can fight back and release them from our bodies is by consuming antioxidants that reduce the oxidative damage. The best way to consume antioxidants is to have a plant-based diet that provides phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients are found in plants that exist within them to fight off their own enemies like ultraviolet radiation, pests, toxins and pollution. By consuming these plants based foods, we inherit their ability to defend from the dangerous free radicals. Plants have thousands of phytonutrients, which is why a daily intake of fruits and vegetables is so essential in a healthy diet.
Here is a simple list of the Phytonutrients and where they come from:
- Carotenoids the yellow, orange, and red colored fruits and vegetables. The best example is the beta-carotene in carrots.
- Polyphenols are the largest group of phytochemicals and include Anthocyanins like fruits, berries, and vegetables with vibrant colors. They are often bitter and aromatic and contain large amounts of antioxidant properties.
- Flavonoids are a sub-set of polyphenols that also include powerful anti-inflammatory properties and are found in apples, apricots, beans, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, chives, cranberries, kale, leeks, pears, onions, red grapes, sweet cherries, and white currants.
- Flavanols like dark chocolate can lower blood pressure.
- Lignans are found in seeds, grains, legumes, fruits, berries, and veggies. Flaxseeds are the best source.
- Indole-3-carbinol is in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and cabbage.
- Isoflavones –these are best avoided due to their effect of hormones, and are included in soy, and soy products.
- Resveratrol found in wine and grapes, peanuts, pistachios, blueberries and cranberries.
The benefits of a balanced diet of phytonutrients are numerous and include reduced blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, improved vision, a decrease in inflammation, lower cholesterol levels and slowing down cell damage.
Eating these foods raw is best (but not for everyone- especially those with specific gut issues like IBS) because cooking reduces the antioxidant content. If you like your vegetables warm, try lightly steaming them instead of boiling out all the nutrients. You may also want to avoid dairy products as these can block the absorption of phytonutrients.
Nutritional supplements that contain phytochemicals are not as effective, but can be used to substitute for those with certain food allergies. Your doctor and nutritionist can help you find the right way to get more phytonutrients in your diet.