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While food rules change frequently, some things remain constant: we should eat less red meat, animal fat, refined carbohydrates and sugar, and more fish, vegetables and fruit. And we should take more exercise. There's a lot of talk about antioxidants and free radicals, and other long-winded words. Don't be put off they're only words. All you need to remember is that antioxidants are good and that the only time it was good being free and radical was at university. Think of the good guys (antioxidants) and bad guys (free radicals), and that every day your body has a war raging inside it with all the food and liquid you ingest, and the pollution, chemicals and toxins that make their way, often insidiously, inside you. You must ensure that the good guys win the battle, every day. You do that simply by eating enough food rich in antioxidants to ensure the free radicals and their mates are quashed. Think of it as a game, but a game you must always win.

The most restrictive thing about eating well is the limitations you set yourself. Rather than drawing up a list of 'can't haves', think instead of the 'can haves'. There is a huge range of food rich in antioxidants you needn't be restricted to a diet of things you don't enjoy. But there's a lot of damaging food out there that you might need to wean yourself off to maintain the balance of a healthy diet. It is never too late to alter the composition of your internal 'chemical soup', to change it from a toxic one to a healthful one. You just have to know how to do it, and be inspired to do it. With knowledge, eating properly becomes second nature. Food as medicine, when it tastes good, is a delight to swallow!

Free-loaders and party-poopers
Free radicals are like free-loaders at a party. No one really invited them, but they got through the door and now they're looking for someone to hitch up with. The thing is, they're no good on their own, and unless they get a date pretty quickly, they'll fade into the shadows and never be seen again. Free radicals latch onto the nearest molecule, they're not fussy. Then they start their attack, eventually destroying the DNA of the cell they attached themselves to. The damaged cell can then replicate itself with serious consequences.

Free radicals cause cardiovascular disease, heart disease, cancer, and much more. They're a serious threat to good health and long life oh yes, they're responsible for premature aging too! It's impossible to avoid free radicals, as the body produces them as it creates energy. They are also formed through stress and illness, and we absorb them through sunlight and radiation (X-rays), pollution and smoking (including passive smoking). But a lot come via what we ingest, and that's perhaps the easiest part for us to control.

Free radicals are present in fried foods (foods you buy as well as food you fry at home), some refined foods (commercially made biscuits, cakes, puddings, crackers, white bread), snack foods such as potato crisps, and margarine or hydrogenated products, food preservatives and peroxides, among other things.

Fortunately, the body has its own weaponry (antioxidants), to kill off the bad guys, and it does a pretty smart job of it back to the party analogy, they're like your parents coming in and telling you the party's over. Antioxidants neutralise free radicals and stop them damaging our bodies.

But it's always a delicate balance, and any of those factors mentioned (stress, illness, pollution, bad diet, smoking, etc) can upset the system. Antioxidants are to be found in abundance in fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruits, herbs, garlic, chillies, ginger, cereals, wholemeal or wholegrain bread, nuts, seeds, pulses, seafood especially oily deep water fish, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate and cocoa, coffee, tea, beer, fruit juice, red wine and white wine (less than in red wine) and much more. In other words, you can still have a party but you get to choose who you invite! The most common antioxidants in food are Vitamin C (in fruit and vegetables); Vitamin E (in nuts, whole grains and vegetable oils such as olive oil and avocado); carotenoids, such as beta-carotene (in orange and yellow fruit and vegetables and green vegetables) and lycopene (in tomatoes); flavonoids and phenolic acids (in fruit and vegetables, chocolate, tea, red wine and red grapes); and sulphur compounds (in garlic, onions, broccoli and Brussels sprouts).

Eat Your Coloureds
No longer should we say 'eat your greens'. Part of the balancing act is eating greens (broccoli, cabbage), reds (berries, plums), purples (red cabbage, eggplant), and oranges/yellows (carrots, persimmons). Fruits and vegetables that are coloured all the way through, such as blueberries and beetroot, rather than just on the skin, such as apple, are better for you because they contain more antioxidants.

Health Tips
  • Try to eat the skin of fruits and vegetables if possible, i.e. apple skins, because they contain antioxidants.
  • Use olive oil rather than butter in cooking.
  • If you drink tea made from tealeaves, have it in between meals, not with food (drinking tea with a meal will interfere with iron absorption from plant foods).
  • Use herbs, nuts and seeds to provide a range of nutrients.
  • Make big pots of homemade soup with a variety of vegetables.
  • Whenever possible, steam vegetables rather than boiling them, to retain the water-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin C.
  • Amazingly, processing, freezing and canning often improve the level of goodness in some foods because the antioxidants change into a form which is more easily absorbed by us (for example carotenoids found in tomato paste or canned tomatoes have more available lycopene than those in fresh tomatoes).

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