One of the most important things that fruits and vegetables can do is to supply us with antioxidants, which help protect us against the effects of atoms called free radicals.
Oxygen, which is vital for our survival, can also be chemically reactive. It can become unstable, resulting in the 'oxidation' of other molecules, which in turn generates free radicals.
Free radicals are a rather complicated concept, but in a nutshell, they are chemically unstable atoms that can cause all sorts of damage in the body. Pollution, smoking, fried or barbecued food and UV rays from the sun can also trigger these free radicals.
Not surprisingly, free radicals have now been proven to be linked to many health problems. They speed up the ageing process by destroying healthy cells and they can also attack the DNA in the nucleus of the cell, causing cell change (mutation) and contributing to cancer. We have protection against free radicals in the form of anti-oxidants, which occur naturally in the food which we eat.
Vitamins A, C and E (the ACE vitamins!), plus the minerals selenium and zinc, are all antioxidants and are contained in the following foods.
Example sources of antioxidants:
VITAMIN A-orange and yellow fruits and vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins
VITAMIN C-fruits (particularly citrus fruits), green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, berries, potatoes and sweet potatoes
VITAMIN E-nuts, avocados, seeds, vegetable oils and oily fish
SELENIUM-brazil nuts, tuna, cabbage
ZINC-pumpkin and sunflower seeds, fish, almonds
It's also important to be conscious of how you are preparing these foods in order to preserve the antioxidant levels. Cooking factors, including method, temperature, cooking time, and portion size, strongly affect the antioxidant activity of food. That is why it is important to make sure you are including some of these fruits and vegetables raw within the diet regularly.
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