November 22, 2010

Eat Your Antioxidants

By Sara Holmberg, Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines VA Health Care System, Pinellas County Extension
Your mother always told you to eat your vegetables, and she knew what she was talking about. One of the best ways to get antioxidants is by eating vegetables. But what are antioxidants and what can they do for you? Many people do not know the answer to this question, or that the way vegetables are cooked can significantly affect the amount of antioxidant that makes it into your mouth.

Why Should I Eat Antioxidants? First, let’s discuss why antioxidants are so important. Antioxidants are a group of important nutrients that include phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring substances in fruits and vegetables that have been shown to have protective properties against diseases. Examples of phytochemicals include allyl sulfides in onion and garlic, and beta-carotene, which can be found in sweet potatoes, carrots, green peppers, and spinach, among others. Antioxidants can prevent disease-causing damage to your cells, as well as repair damage that has been done. An antioxidant works by binding to a cell in your body, preventing an oxygen molecule from binding to that same cell. When oxygen binds to a cell, it allows free radicals to enter. Free radicals enter your body through exposure to cigarette smoke, UV rays (from sunlight and tanning beds), and environmental pollutants like smog. These free radicals damage cells, weakening your immune system and putting you at greater risk for premature aging, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cataracts. Antioxidants, which kill these free radicals, are found naturally in fruits and vegetables. They can also be found in herbs and whole grains.

Cooking vegetables can kill the antioxidants. As most Americans do not consume the recommended 2-3 cups of vegetables per day, it’s important to maximize the nutrients from the vegetables that are eaten. Let’s discuss different ways to cook vegetables with respect to maintaining their antioxidant content.

The Worst: Boiling. Boiling is the most common way to cook vegetables. However, it is considered the worst antioxidant killer: most vegetables lose between 30-50% of antioxidants from boiling. This is because many antioxidants are “water-soluble;” they leach out into the boiling water and are lost when that water is drained. The longer vegetables are exposed to water, the more nutrients they lose. If boiling is your preferred method of cooking, it’s recommended that only a minimal amount of water be used (do not “drown” the vegetables), and make sure to use the shortest cooking time necessary for tenderness. Exposure to heat causes antioxidant losses. Baking is also considered a poor way to cook vegetables as the long cook time kills many nutrients.

The Best: Microwaving and Steaming. It is a common myth that microwaves kill nutrients. In fact, the opposite is true. Shortened cooking times make microwaves the best way to retain antioxidants and nutrients. Again, the trick is using as little water as possible. Frozen vegetables need no added water, and fresh vegetables only require 1-2 tablespoons. Steaming is considered almost as good as microwaving. Cooking vegetables over the water instead of in the water allows the nutrients to remain intact.

The Maybe: Sautéing. Sautéing on the stove is considered a good method as well. Using olive oil is a great choice because it actually increases the antioxidant content of the vegetables. This is because olive oil by nature is full of antioxidants. Other oils, such as canola, do provide some nutritional benefits but not the antioxidant effects of olive oil.

One More Thing. As a general rule: the darker the vegetable, the greater the antioxidant content. For example, choose red onions over white or yellow, orange sweet potatoes over white or russet potatoes, and red leaf or romaine over iceberg lettuce. By purchasing dark colored fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, and by changing your cooking method to microwaving or steaming, you will help your body fight disease and feel younger and healthier.

Florida has an abundance of fresh produce year round. Check out the seasonal availability chart from the Florida department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to see what is in season.

For additional information, please refer to the website below.

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