While traditional holiday meals are loaded with salt, fat and sugar, many of the foods we eat regularly, such as sweets and sodas, can also increase glucose and insulin levels in the diet. blood. Alas, they can also increase the amount of free radicals, or molecules with unattached electrons, in the body, which can cause serious cell damage.

We hear a lot about antioxidants and are encouraged to eat rich foods. But what exactly are they and why do we need them? As a researcher examining cell damage, I will explain the oxidative process and explain why it is important to stop it. Free radicals – cellular bads – are produced during the process of oxidation. Antioxidants help prevent some of the damage.

If a substance is "oxidized", it has lost electrons to the benefit of another substance. On the other hand, we say that one substance is "reduced" when it has gained electrons from another substance. Oxidizing agents are called electron acceptors because they remove the electrons from a substance, putting them in a state of loss or oxidized. Oxidizing agents keep the electrons for themselves.

The oxidizing agents that have accepted the electrons become free radicals if the unpaired electrons do not bind to other molecules. These free radicals disrupt our cellular metabolism, even interfering with our DNA.

Nutrient metabolism and free radical formation

Our mitochondria, which function as small plants in our cells, are responsible for burning fuel from food and producing energy in each of our cells via a process called oxidative phosphorylation. This metabolic pathway is a cellular chain reaction that involves a series of oxidation and reduction reactions in which atoms attempt to give or receive enough electrons to form a complete "shell". Most atoms have a corresponding number of protons and electrons, but this leaves the various "shells" of electrons incomplete, making them vulnerable to cleaning the body in search of electrons for l & # 39; pairing.
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Normally, when an electron separates from one molecule involved in oxidation and reduction, it is attached almost immediately to another. But when they do not, free radicals form.

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Under ordinary conditions, this oxidation process creates chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen. This can lead to the production of unstable free radical molecules at high concentrations.

All free radicals are not bad. The formation of free radicals is crucial for the oxidation of the nutrients contained in our food into chemical energy.

The accumulation of free radicals, be they atoms, ions or molecules, is harmful and can have serious consequences for health. These unstable molecules are detrimental to the structure and function of cells throughout the body due to their ability to oxidize cells, called oxidative stress.

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Free radicals affect the growth, development and survival of the body's cells. Their reactive nature allows them to engage in unnecessary side reactions leading to cellular impairment and possibly bodily harm when present in disproportionate amounts.

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They directly alter cell membranes and DNA. This leads to a cellular mutation and causes the erroneous growth of new cells, which means that free radicals are associated with both the development of cancer and the progression of aging. Free radicals are often involved in health problems experienced with age, such as hardened arteries, diabetes and even the formation of wrinkles.

Holiday foods rich in antioxidants

Overeating increases the production of free radicals. As we eat, our mitochondria release more activated oxygen than normal during energy consumption, thus generating higher levels of free radicals. In addition, the risk of oxidative stress is greater when certain types of food are eaten and the degree of danger can be influenced by the way they are prepared or cooked.

You can avoid sources of free radicals by planning in advance and incorporating healthy foods into your daily life, not just during the holidays, but throughout the year. Keep in mind that the free radical content is high in nutrient-poor and low-antioxidant meals.

  • Avoid foods high in blood sugar or high in refined carbohydrates and sugars. They are more likely to generate free radicals.
  • Limit processed meats such as sausages, bacon and salami. They contain preservatives, which leads to the production of free radicals.
  • Limit red meat. It is particularly vulnerable to oxidation because of its high iron content.
  • Do not reuse fats and cooking oils. The heating of fats and oils during cooking oxidizes them, generating free radicals that seep into our food.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are not only high in calories but can also produce free radicals in the body. Try to limit your drinks to one or two a day.
  • Consume foods rich in antioxidants, chemicals that inhibit the oxidation of molecules by neutralizing free radicals, which prevents them from causing cell damage. Antioxidants are found in various plants as vitamins A, C and E, selenium and some phytonutrients and polyphenols. Cranberries are loaded!
  • Look for foods containing beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, including broccoli flowers, alfalfa sprouts, Brussels sprouts, carrots, green cabbage, corn, mango and tomatoes. These foods can be incorporated into several side dishes, such as vegetable dishes, pans and salads.
  • Consider fruit as a dessert rather than rich pies and cakes. Apples, cantaloupes, cherries, grapefruit, kiwis, papayas, red grapes, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are delicious on their own or when they are mixed to create beautiful fruit salads.
  • Take nuts – always abundant during the holidays – and other foods rich in vitamin E, such as sweet potatoes.
  • Vegetable metabolites called flavonoids also demonstrate antioxidant functions. Among the many antioxidant-rich flavonoids are onions, eggplants, lettuce, turnip greens, endives, pears, red wine, parsley, citrus fruits, berries, cherries, plums, legumes, soy, milk, cheese, tofu and miso.
  • Enjoy the antioxidant superfoods, those that contain more than one vitamin. These are prunes, plums, raisins, blueberries, cranberries, figs, oranges, pomegranates, sweet red peppers, beets, kale, spinach and dark chocolate.
  • Try herbal medicine – in your food! Many spices can not only enhance the flavor of our turkeys and Christmas hams, but also reduce oxidative stress. These include ginger, grape seed extract, ginkgo, rosemary and turmeric.
  • Take time for tea. At the end of the evening, you can enjoy a cup of warm and soothing green tea while knowing that the polyphenols in your infusion are also combating the oxidation.

Manal Elfakhani is a postdoctoral research fellow in nutrition at Georgia State University.