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The Role of Antioxidants in the Mediterranean Diet

A plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean diet offers a plethora of nutrients that can help your body stay healthy. These plant foods are loaded with antioxidants.

Antioxidants are a key component of many plant foods that help slow down the process of oxidation (when your body’s cells burn oxygen). This slowing decreases the amount of free radicals, or unstable molecules, that cause damage to your cells, tissues, and DNA. (Think about a sliced apple. Before you know it, the exposed flesh turns from white to brown. This browning occurs because of oxidation.)

Antioxidants are a crucial part of your diet because you can’t avoid oxidation all together. Consider the many contaminants — car exhaust, sunlight, unhealthy foods, and air pollution, for example — that you’re exposed to during a typical day. These types of exposures can cause free radicals to gain speed in your body, damaging everything in their path and leaving you at greater risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.

Eating a diet high in antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene means better protection for your body and overall health. Go back to that sliced apple for a moment. If you brush the apple slice with orange juice or lemon juice right after you slice it, the flesh will stay whiter longer because of the antioxidant vitamin C in the juice.

The ATTICA study in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition measured the total antioxidant capacity of men and women in Greece. It found that the participants who followed a traditional Mediterranean diet had an 11 percent higher antioxidant capacity than those who didn’t adhere to a traditional diet.

The findings also showed that the participants who followed the traditional diet the most had 19 percent lower oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol concentrations, showing a benefit in reducing heart disease.

You don’t have to look far or even cook that much to get antioxidants into your diet. You can find plenty of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables. By eating five to eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you can take advantage of produces’ antioxidants. The table identifies some common foods, including lots of fruits and veggies, that are rich in certain antioxidants.

Common Foods Containing Antioxidants
Antioxidant Fruit Vegetable Nuts, Seeds, Spices
Vitamin C Cantaloupe, grapefruit, guava, lemons, oranges, pineapple, strawberries, tangerines Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, green and red bell peppers, spinach, kale, collard greens, tomatoes Chestnuts
Vitamin E Apricots, avocadoes, cranberries, guava, nectarines, pomegranates Mustard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, turnip and collard greens Almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds
Beta carotene Apricots, cantaloupe, cherries, grapefruit, peaches, plums, tangerines Broccoli, carrots, kale, spinach, turnip and collard greens; romaine lettuce Cilantro, pistachios, pumpkin seeds

Should you supplement? Although you’ve likely heard the news that antioxidants found in foods promote good health, scientists are still researching whether taking supplements such as beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, or other antioxidant blends can replace eating the real thing.

Research has provided a great deal of information about many individual nutrients and their impacts on health, but researchers still don’t have the answers to many questions, such as how much of a supplement is enough and whether supplemented antioxidants have the same effect working on their own as the natural ones do working with accompanying nutrients.

Another supplement concern is that taking high doses of antioxidants may actually cause the antioxidants to work as pro-oxidants that promote rather than neutralize oxidation. The bottom line is that eating whole foods is still your best bet to combat diseases and live your healthiest life.

Folks in the Mediterranean eat scads of produce, and this type of food intake is one of the reasons you see more longevity in people who live in this region.

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