Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February's Focus: Antioxidants

A Reason To Celebrate Chocolate
Try my vegan cheesecake - for the antioxidants, of course

 With February comes Valentine's day, one of my favorite holidays of the year. Not for the schmaltzy cards or the flowers, but for the excuse to eat copious amounts of chocolate.  Dark chocolate in particular. The best thing about dark chocolate is that it's very rich in antioxidants.  You've probably heard a lot about antioxidants, and many of you know what they do - but I wanted to take a closer look at why they are so essential to good health.

What is an antioxidant?

It may sound more like politics than nutrition, but antioxidants are like the superheroes of the food world, rounding up and shutting down the bad guys .  The bad guys are called free radicals.

So what exactly are " free radicals"  and why are they the bad guys? Simply put,  "free radicals"  are partial, destructive molecules. Molecules are supposed to be made up of pairs of electrons,  but  when a molecule has been damaged as a result of pollution, poor nutrition, pesticides, infection, stress or just plain aging, it loses one of its electrons. These incomplete  molecules wreak havoc on your system. They race through your body trying to steal an electron from complete molecules in order to complete themselves. The free radicals do an enormous amount of damage on their rampage.   This is called oxidation.

Antioxidants are complete molecules that fly through your system with their little red superhero capes on, donating electrons to the incomplete molecules and stopping the free radicals in their path of destruction. No matter how many electrons these  antioxidants  give away, they  remain stable, complete molecules.   Is that a cool superhero power or what? 

Think of an apple slice. It turns brown when it is exposed to the air. That is naturally occuring oxidation. If you squeeze some lemon juice on the apple slices the browning process slows down. That is because lemons contain a lot of Vitamin C which is a powerful antioxidant. The antioxidants significantly slow down the oxidative process.

Where are antioxidants found?

Antioxidants are present in varying degrees in all fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meats, dark chocolate, whole grains, nuts and even red wine.

The more variety you eat, the greater your antioxidant levels will be. Eating a wide variety of foods including different  colors of fruits and vegetables will give you the best array of antioxidants.

Dairy is like kryptonite to antioxidants; it binds with them and reduces their potency.  To ensure you get the full benefit of antioxidants , it is best to eat antioxidant rich foods away from any dairy.   

Have lemon or almond milk in your tea instead of milk, combine your fruit with a coconut kefir instead of dairy yogurt and, use a non-dairy milk in your smoothies to make sure these powerful little molecules have a clear and healing path.

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