What they are and how they affect your health
Oxygen is essential to the body for life but in excess it can cause a variety of negative health consequences. Our bodies are constantly managing oxidized molecules that enter into our bloodstream. Known as free radicals, these molecules may come from many sources, some we can’t always control, like the air we breathe or our environment, but it’s not my job to scare you so I want to focus on free radical sources we can control like the foods that we eat and drink, medicines we take or our use of alcohol and tobacco.
Oxidation occurs when a molecule is carrying an extra oxygen atom, which makes it unstable. Once in the body the oxygen uncouples and is now a single atom with unpaired electrons. Electrons prefer to be in pairs so these atoms, now free radicals, search ruthlessly for other electrons to pair with. Before I disparage them too much I should point out that free radicals are in fact an essential element of life. They allow the body to convert air and food into energy and they assist the immune system in attacking foreign invaders. However, if allowed to excessively accumulate, they can damage our cells and cause oxidative stress which can lead to a number of health problems.
Proteins and DNA can be robbed of the electrons that make them what they are
Often the first signs of oxidative stress might show up as skin issues like psoriasis, eczema or even moles. It’s often the culprit in arthritis as well which can start as minor joint pain but quickly lead to disabling joint degradation if left unchecked. It’s also responsible for accelerated ageing and mismatch of chronological age to internal age. This all seems superficial compared to the potential for more serious diseases. Proteins and DNA can be robbed of the electrons that make them what they are, causing them to mutate which can then lead to cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other devastating illnesses. Another common side effect is atherosclerosis caused by oxidized cholesterol and fats in foods fried in hydrogenated and refined plant oils, causing inflammation of the arteries that can lead to blockage.
Antioxidants play an important role as a balancing factor to prevent oxidative stress. Their primary delivery is through our food, so when our diets are too heavy in oxidized food and too light in healthy foods rich in antioxidants, we start to experience oxidative stress. Vitamins that occur in our food like beta carotene and vitamins C and E are natural antioxidants, however taking them as a supplement – or even increasing their intake through diet – may not always effectively reverse the damage that can lead to disease. This is why it’s so important to be proactive and consume a diet of fresh, whole foods that are not processed, fried or grown with chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
For most people, it’s actually healthier to increase foods that are higher in saturated fat when balanced with a higher intake of vegetables, a lower intake of carbohydrates, and an elimination of refined sugars and processed foods. Eating out can have a lot of pitfalls so, if you do, order food grilled or baked instead of fried, opt for a side salad instead of fries, choose whole grain options instead white buns, pasta or rice, and do your best to skip desserts that are loaded with refined sugars.
It's so important to include vegetables in your diet, every meal, every day
Especially important is increasing your overall intake of fresh vegetables. Dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, low-starch veggies and moderate high-starch veg are all important to include in your diet, every meal, every day. Also important to include are fresh fruits and, if you enjoy them, sea vegetables are incredibly nutritious. I’ll go into more detail in my next foundation post about the best fruits and veggies to choose and how to work them easily into your favourite recipes.
It’s important to remember that eating healthy doesn’t need to be complicated, fancy or expensive. As much as you hear about ‘superfoods’ in the media, eating goji berries and having turmeric shots every day is nice but isn’t going to move the dial much in your overall health if you’re not eating a foundation of healthy food. You may also hear about a lot of fancy powders and potions, but the same goes for them, they’re fine to supplement to a healthy diet but are never a stand-in for one.
It’s also very buzzy to eat a plant-based diet, but what you don’t hear about are the deficiencies that often result from incorrect implementation of the diet and lack of adequate supplementation. If you don’t have a moral issue with eating animals and are willing to make high quality choices, you can include eggs, fish, beef, chicken, pork, wild game and some dairy in your diet and enjoy optimal health without the need to take supplements. If it does happen to be a moral issue for you or you just don’t enjoy animal-based foods or maybe you’re concerned about the environment, consult with a nutritionist to find out how to eat a plant-based diet in a safe, healthy way. I will also be doing an upcoming post outlining a comparison of eating an animal vs. plant-based diet and their respective impacts on both health and the environment.
A balanced and varied diet will supply you with all the vitamins, minerals and amino acids you need to keep your immune system healthy, and the antioxidants required to prevent oxidative stress and the diseases it can cause. In addition to those mentioned above, another upcoming post will cover how good digestion is crucial in ensuring that, once you start eating well, you also properly absorb all those vital nutrients.