Anti-Oxidants –  A Health Powerhouse

We have all heard Hippocrates’ quote “Let Food Be Thy Medicine – and Medicine by Thy Food,” but what does that really mean?  Let’s look at just one example of food as medicine – antioxidants. We’ll soon see why Hippocrates’ quote from 400 BC is timeless.

It is important to note that Hippocrates’ quote is not a declaration of food as a replacement for medicine, but that food contains many health-promoting and disease-fighting properties including antioxidants.

Flavonoids and carotenoids are two categories compounds of antioxidants found in plants that support numerous functions and protection processes in our body. They are found in many fruits, vegetables, soy-based foods, lentils, and herbs as well as chocolate, wine, and tea. Foods with flavonoids are foods with tones of blue and purple, some reds, and emerald greens. Carotenoids can be found in orange, yellow, and some red fruits and vegetables.

Let’s dig a little deeper into these powerhouses starting with flavonoids. First, over 8,000 different flavonoids have been identified! They are what give fruit and vegetables their color.  Flavonoids are anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-carcinogenic, help dampen allergic responses, and modulate immune responses.  Flavonoids are water soluble, meaning the are not stored in the body for very long and therefore must be replenished regularly. Any excess is excreted in our urine. 

Flavonoids are known for their powerful antioxidant activity. They protect collagen activity which holds the tissues of our body together and is also found in tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. They also protect against cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and inflammation. A 1985 study of 804 men ages 65-84 found the more flavonoids they consumed, the lower the incident of coronary heart disease. Flavonoids can help reduce type 2 diabetes by improving glucose sensitivity. The risk of some cancers can be reduced by eating flavonoids. They can inhibit cell growth and proliferation as well as stimulate cell death. Flavonoids protect the brain by protecting blood vessels and lowering inflammation. A study published April 22, 2020 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported data concluded from the Framingham Study showed that participants with the highest intake of flavonoids and had the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Carotenoids are another category of compounds with robust antioxidant activity . They represent foods with bright red, orange, and yellow colors.  There are more than 600 known carotenoids and are fat soluble, meaning they are able to be stored in the body. In plants, carotenoids absorb light for photosynthesis.  Some foods that have carotenoids include sweet potatoes, dried apricots, tomatoes, collard greens, peppers, watermelon, broccoli, cantaloupe, kale, spinach, and Swiss chard. Several green pigmented foods have yellow and orange carotenoids, but they are masked with green chlorophyll.  Several types of carotenoids are converted into Vitamin A by the liver.  Vitamin A is essential for growth, eye heath, and the immune system. Other carotenoids support our nerves, mucous membranes, and respiratory tissue. Lycopene and beta-carotene are two well known carotenoids. Lycopene is a strong antioxidant that stabilizes free radicals and is found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, and pink grapefruit. Research has found lycopene lowers the risk of heart attacks, reduces blood pressure, and lowers LDL cholesterol. It is also associated with a lower risk of prostate, lung, uterine, and breast cancer.  Beta-carotene fights free radicals that are associated with many chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. It can be found in sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce, apricots, butternut squash, carrots, and mangos. Lutein and zeaxanthin are also familiar carotenoids, as they are associated with eye health. A study concluded that having a minimum of 6 milligrams of lutein in your diet daily can decrease the risk of macular degeneration by 43%, and adding lutein and zeaxanthin to the diet can slow or halt current eye damage.  Lutein and zeaxanthin also help prevent the formation of cataracts. Antioxidants in carotenoids help destroy damaged cells, thus reduce the risk of several cancers including lung, prostate, breast, skin, and colorectal cancer.

Flavonoids, carotenoids, zeaxanthan, lutein, lycopene and other antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals were unknown in Hippocrates’ time.  Yet he knew good food along with fresh air, exercise and rest was the key to health. Food was medicine. And it still is today.  The power of a WFPB foods cannot be understated. Eating “foods as grown” is still the key to good health as much today as it was during Hippocrates’ time.  As new discoveries in medicine continue to be made, we understand “good food” aka WFPB diet, will still be the foundation of good health.

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