An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

The ABCs to Good Health

For many adults, antioxidants may be the key to a longer life

Thinly sliced fruits and vegetables backlit

For your health’s sake, it’s time to revisit the alphabet. 

Therein lies the secret to a vibrant, long life, says Amitava Dasgupta, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. 

Dasgupta reveals his personal path to good health in his book, Pocket Antioxidants. He not only starts his day with an apple, but follows with up to nine servings of strawberries, guava, mango, kiwi, kale, cherries, pineapple, limes, butternut squash and other luscious, colorful fruits and vegetables. 

“‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ may be more than an old saying,” he says. “Apples are a major source of vitamin C, other antioxidants and fiber.” 

Antioxidants, which are found in many of the foods we consume, fortify the body’s cells. From anthocyanin to zeaxanthin, these nutrients curb “free radicals,” molecules that in moderation do us an internal favor by breaking down food, fighting infections and helping us build muscles. However, in excess, these radicals also create “oxidative” stress that batters cells, potentially spawning cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Type-2 diabetes and eye ailments. 

“Food is always the best source of antioxidants because it’s natural,” Dasgupta says. “Choose any fruits or vegetables because they’re all good sources of antioxidants.” 

To find out the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables based on age, gender and level of physical activity, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nutrition calculator. In addition, heed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest dietary guidelines: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, a fourth with grains (pasta, potatoes and cereal) and a fourth with protein (low-fat milk, fish, nuts and meat). 

“If you eat good food frequently, you do not need antioxidant supplements,” Dasgupta says. 

The easy route to nowhere 

If getting your fill of healthy foods seems daunting, forget what you’d expect to be the quickest fix: vitamin pills, Dasgupta says. 

National Institutes of Health-supported studies of 100,000 or more people consistently show dietary supplements don’t slash heart disease, cancer or cataracts. 

As to why, scientists aren’t sure. “Twenty years ago, they said supplements were good for you. Now they say the opposite: It’s much better to get antioxidants from your food,” Dasgupta says. 

Herbal and dietary supplements can be dangerous, he notes. “There’s so much inadequate research and such a lack of quality control. The level of ingredients, good and bad, may not be known.” 

Some unlabeled ingredients may include pesticides, metals or even drugs, all of which can alter the effects of your prescribed meds. “Just because the label says ‘natural’ does not mean it’s safe,” he says. After all, poisonous plants are “natural” — that doesn’t make them “safe.” 

That’s why it’s essential to alert your health provider and pharmacist before adding a supplement. Also, check with your doctor twice yearly to learn the latest research on what you should be taking (or omitting) based on your age, ailments and medicines. 

“Don’t take anything without talking to your physician, no matter the claims,” Dasgupta says. “If they could cure cancer, don’t you think they’d have gotten a Nobel Prize?” 

Nature’s alphabet for grownups 

Still have questions about which antioxidants you should include in your daily diet? No need to worry — here are the adult ABCs of antioxidants:  

Anthocyanins: These polyphenol nutrients cut the risk of heart disease, inflammatory disease, Alzheimer’s disease and esophageal cancer. “Many antioxidants are actually pigments, primarily in fruits’ skins,” Dasgupta says. Found in: blackberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and raspberries. 

Beta-carotene: This is an orangey substance in food that converts in the body to vitamin A, lowers risk of heart disease, cancer and age-related eye disease, while boosting immunity, vision and skin-girding collagen. Limit daily consumption of beta-carotene to 700 micrograms for women and 900 mcg for men. Consuming more than 3,000 mcg daily is toxic, boosting lung and stomach cancer, hip fractures and birth defects — while interfering with bone-strengthening vitamin D absorption. Found in: carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, papayas, mangoes, peaches, pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes as well as milk, liver, butter and eggs. 

Vitamin C: Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is our body’s first defense against free radicals, Dasgupta says. It cuts cancer risk, delays hardening of the arteries that leads to stroke and heart attacks, and also heals wounds. Around 500 mg daily is recommended, but since Vitamin C is water soluble, most excess will be excreted in your urine. If you take in 2-3 grams of vitamin C, as some websites promote, the nutrient can crystallize, possibly forming kidney stones while curbing iron absorption. Found in: mangoes, oranges, apples, limes, pineapples, bell peppers, tomatoes, kale, lemon juice, apple and other fruit juices, whether fresh or frozen. 

Vitamin E: These plant compounds — eight forms, including alpha-tocopherol — defend against bacteria and fungi. The recommended daily allowance of Vitamin E is 15 mg or 22.4 I.U. (international units). Excess vitamin E causes 30 percent higher death rate in prostate cancer patients — and also leads to hemorrhagic stroke, caused by bleeding in the brain. Found in: nuts, eggs, fortified cereals, fruit, spinach, kale, butternut squash and other green leafy vegetables, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, almonds and soybean oil.   

Lutein: This carotenoid naturally present in eyes curbs eye disease risk. Found in: green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collards and kale, broccoli, corn, peas, papayas and oranges.

Lycopene: Like beta-carotene, this carotenoid that gives veggies and fruit their rich hues fights prostate and other cancers. Found in: pink and red fruits and vegetables, such as pink grapefruit, watermelon, apricots, papaya and tomatoes.  

Polyphenolic compounds: Caffeic acid, catechins and thearubigin are found in coffee, tea and chocolate. They lower risk of dementia, cancer and heart disease. Teas boost immunity and fight inflammation. Surprisingly, java has five to eight times as many antioxidants as tea, even green tea. However, the best option is decaf — and hold the milk and sugar. “Caffeine is a diuretic and can raise blood pressure,” Dasgupta says. 

Reservatrol: This nutrient found in grape skins boosts longevity while thwarting cancer, dementia, arthritis, heart disease and colds. Limit yourself to a maximum of one drink daily for women and anyone 65 and over; or two daily for younger men. Once males reach 65, the natural antioxidant blocks many of the cardiovascular benefits of exercise according to recent studies. The most beneficial are cabernet, pinot noir and other red wines.

Selenium: This antioxidant fights heart disease and hypothyroidism, and boosts immunity. Limit yourself to 55 mcg daily and no more than 400 mcg. An excess in selenium can cause hair loss, brittle nails, nausea, diarrhea and Type II diabetes. Found in: corn, wheat, legumes, shellfish, beef, turkey, eggs and cheese.  

Zeaxanthin: A recent addition to the superhero slate, this carotenoid gives salmon and shrimp its redness and battles age-related macular degeneration and eye disease. Found in: salmon, crayfish, krill, trout and shrimp.

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