Arm Yourself With Antioxidants

23 January 2012

Above: Image © Free Images, Janusz Gawron

Growing up, everyone has a vegetable that they take offense to – your nemesis vegetable, as it were. Some resist eating brussel sprouts (for good reason – they taste like farts!), some broccoli (notoriously bitter to some palates), and others, like me, choose tomatoes as their enemy.

In this day and age of endless culinary choices, why should you bother to eat vegetables that are gross?

Before I answer that, let me fill you in on some background. If you think back to some of your science classes, you may recall learning about electrons. Electrons are tiny, negatively charged particles that are part of the makeup of atoms. There are certain rules that we know determine the behavior of electrons – one of which is that they absolutely adore being in pairs.

Every single chemical molecule you encounter on a daily basis – from water to the scents in your hairspray - is just brimming with nicely paired off electrons. In fact, usually when something happens to create an “unpaired electron”, it finds a mate in no time flat. Electrons are serial daters.

So when a molecule in our environment is hit by something with high enough energy (such as sunlight, or the high temperatures in a cars engine…) to knock free one of those happily paired electrons off, it becomes what is known as a free radical.

When a molecule has an electron stolen from it, it is said to be oxidized. This newly created free radical wants one thing and one thing only: an electron. If it so happens that the free radical is generated somewhere in you - or in something you eat, or in the air you breathe - it will steal an electron from you. This effect is analogous to a fast moving car on a busy highway slamming on its brakes – everything could work out fine with minimal impact, but then again, you could have a massive car crash on your hands.

So what can you do? Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and stock up your defenses – compounds called antioxidants. Any molecule can give up an electron to a free radical, but certain types of molecules – antioxidants – give them up a little more readily.

Did you know? If a free radical steals an electron from something like your DNA, there is a very real chance that that single event may lead to cancer!

Antioxidants are chemical compounds that have the ability to ‘mop up’ pesky free-radicals, because they are ‘ready and willing’ to do just that. But antioxidants are a bit more complex than that. When they are attacked by a free radical and end up with an unpaired electron, they can actually react with themselves, rather than acting as another, dangerous free radical!

When a free radical “attacks” another molecule to steal an electron, it generates a new free radical. The process continues until two free radicals finally find each other.

Did you know? The antioxidants in our fruits and vegetables give rise to their beautiful colours. This is because molecules that make good antioxidants have lots and lots of double bonds in their molecular structure, and double bonds in a molecule are what give rise to colours as well!

It’s kind of like mother nature is trying to tell us something by making all those fruits and vegetables display attractive, bright colours: “Eat this stuff to protect yourself!”

The jury is still out as to which antioxidants prevent which type of damage, but nevertheless, eating a varied diet of many fruits and vegetables should cover your bases. Besides, in addition to making you healthier, it’ll make your mom proud.

Learn More!

Wikipedia entry on Antioxidants

Wikipedia entry on Radicals

Wikipedia entry on Free Radical Theory with respect to aging and antioxidant therapy

'Good Health' Web resources on Antioxidants and Radicals in foods

CRC Handbook of Free Radicals and Antioxidants, vol 1 (1989), excerpt available here

Kate Woods is a graduate student at UBC who studies the chemistry of various marine creatures. Kate hopes for a long and healthy life, thus she makes sure to eat plenty of veggies - even tomatoes.


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