Friday, March 14, 2014

Oxidative Stress and the Fountain of Youth

Eat your fruits and veggies!! I'm sure you've heard that like a zillion times before - from me, your mom, Dr. Oz, pretty much everyone. Repeating that message over and over hasn't done much to change America's eating habits because consumption of plant based foods is WAY down and chronic disease is WAY up. I'm hoping that understanding the science of WHY fruits and vegetables are critical for your health will result in making healthier choices intrinsically because it will just make sense.  Don't worry, this concept is like 5th grade science level - nothing too complicated for a Friday… I can almost guarantee an "aha" Oprah moment, it's so cool :)

Nutrition guru and family friend Toni Branner reached out to me right after Ed's Leukemia diagnosis and the message she shared forever changed my life. She explained to me the connection between diet and disease and I made immediate lifestyle changes. I am forever indebted to her and have never looked back at my old unhealthy ways. Toni is a gifted teacher and has shown thousand of people how to prevent disease, eat healthier and achieve optimal wellness. She is especially passionate about sharing her message with children and has a special gift of explaining complicated concepts in a very simple way. Her lesson on oxidation blew me away - it was a message I had never heard before (maybe I had way back in middle school, but it certainly didn't stick) and everything came full circle. I was able to interview her and now I get to share her amazing message of oxidation with you!
"Take a deep breath in - when you breathe oxygen it's a wonderful thing. It goes into your body and is used for metabolism and thru metabolism you produce energy. The by-product of that energy is called ATP which is used for having fun, and going to work and exercising, all the things your body needs to do. That's a good thing, but it's kinda like a fire in the fireplace - it's warm and pretty but what's leftover are the ashes. A byproduct of breathing oxygen and metabolism is something we call oxygen free radicals - most scientists shorten that to free radical. The free radicals are actually a molecule that's missing an electron, so they're unstable. They run around your body trying to steal an electron from your healthy molecules and when they do that they cause a tiny bit of damage. Common areas of damage are damaged proteins, damaging the insides of your blood vessels so more plaque and stick stuff can get in there and clog it up, your retina which is macular degeneration, your skin which is wrinkles. Any part of your body can be effected by oxidative stress from these free radicals and the most scary one is when it damages your DNA. When a free radical takes a little bite out of your DNA thats called a mutation and that can lead to cancer. Over time those little bites from the free radicals taking the electron causes damage and that's aging and chronic disease. Every single disease you can think of has been related thru research to oxidative stress. Every disease process is related to this so in theory if you can reduce the free radical damage then you could reduce the risk of aging and disease. Well not the risk of aging, which obviously happens to everyone, but slow it down as much as possible. 
So you have this oxidative stress - this is the big A-ha moment - you need antioxidants. Antioxidants are powerful powerful molecules that are in food and they can actually neutralize the free radicals before it hurts you. So it actually donates an electron to the free radical before it causes damage and some antioxidants can actually repair damage and repair DNA which is really really exciting.
So where the heck do I get these antioxidants?! You make a few of them in your body but most of them you have to eat and they're really only in plant based foods - so fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and beans. Most Americans especially and people all over the world have stopped eating as much plant food and this has really caused a direct result of a lot more chronic disease. That little graph has gone up, up, up over the last 50-100 years because we've gotten away from eating whole food that we grow.
It's a really simple message. The other example I use is when you cut open an apple and the oxygen in the air hits it and it turns brown, that's oxidative stress to the apple. Or you leave a nail out in the rain and it rusts - that 's oxidative stress to the nail. So it's kinda like you're rusting from within. 
If you can slow that down by eating healthy plant foods - and there are some foods that are like super foods that have way more antioxidants than other foods. A word that is interchangeable with antioxidants are phyto-nutrients or phyto-chemicals, which basically means nutrients that come from plants. Thousands and thousands have been identified and they think they'll find up to a million eventually that they will be able to name. If you can get back to eating more plant foods studies show you reduce your risk of every known chronic disease across the board!"
So where the heck can I get these amazing, healing, age and disease busting antioxidants?! As Toni said, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and drum roll please……CHOCOLATE!!!!! Yes, dark chocolate can help heal the world. As for fruits and vegetables, go for color and the darker the better. Intensely colored plant foods usually contain more chemically active antioxidant pigments that pale ones. Here are top five super foods you need to add to your grocery list:
  1. Berries - Not only are blueberries, raspberries and blackberries absolutely delicious but they contain a powerful group of antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, which play a role in preventing cancer and heart disease. They have anti-inflammatory properties, help regulate blood sugar, help maintain the elasticity in collagen and protect blood vessels. Berries also contain an anti-cancer compound called ellagic acid. Glad one of my favorite foods tops the list!
  2. Broccoli - this powerful veggie has been growing on me and contains an antioxidant called indole-3-carbinol which works by breaking down estrogen reducing the risk of breast, ovarian and cervical cancers. Broccoli also contains Vitamin C which is an antioxidant that protects us from infection, toxins and pollutants. Eat it up!!

  3. Dark Chocolate - this just makes me happy and I'm going to treat myself to some every day because it is making me younger!! Aptly named "food of the Gods", dark chocolate contains many potent antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols, catechins, proanthocyanidins and bioflavonoids. These antioxidants protect the heart and brain, improve immune function, reduce inflammation in blood vessels and fight cancer. The darker the chocolate, the greater the antioxidant content, so look for high quality chocolates with the main ingredients of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. DONE, DONE and DONE!
  4. Wild salmon - This Swede is thrilled that wild salmon can help keep me youthful and disease free! Salmon gets its pink color from the antioxidant called astaxanthin, which has been found to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation and heart disease. It seems to be the best option when it comes to protecting your DNA from free radical damage since it's 6,000 times more effective than Vitamin C, 800 times more than CoQ10 and 550 times more than Vitamin E. Wild salmon has also been shown to protect against liver, colon and breast cancers. It is the best source of astaxanthin, with a 100g serving providing 4.5 grams of the powerful antioxidant. I buy a whole 3 pound bag at Costco individually packaged for $34.89 - I love baking it with pesto and slivered almonds, YUM! By the way, wild salmon has 600% more Omega 3s than Atlantic farmed salmon…it's a no-brainer!
  5. Sweet Potatoes - what Southern girl doesn't love sweet potatoes?! This nutritional powerhouse is one of the healthiest tastiest foods available. A medium sweet potato is jam packed with over 300% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A, which is essential for eye, bone and immune health. It also contains valuable anthocyanins and flavonoids that lower blood glucose and lipid levels and protect agains the effects of heavy metals. Sweet potatoes are affordable, available year round (majority from my North Carolina) and there are so many ways to prepare them - super food indeed!
Mother Nature is the best and I love that the story of oxidation has a happy ending! The big take home question: Are you eating foods that are speeding up your aging process or are you eating foods that will help you age gracefully? Meet ya at the Farmer's Market!

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