In order to assure that you are getting all of the various antioxidants your body needs, simply choose foods with all colors of the rainbow each day. (Photo: Getty Images)

Antioxidants are often called “the bodyguards of health.”

They earned this distinction because they protect our cells from destruction by free radicals.

Free radicals are highly-charged oxidized particles that enter our cells, causing damage. This results in a greater risk of developing cancer, cataracts, a suppressed immune system, premature aging, heart disease and stroke.

Oxidation is what happens to metal when it rusts. The metal reacts with the oxygen in the air, which causes the metal to decompose and deteriorate.

When you slice an apple, it turns brown. It reacts with the oxygen in the air, causing it to oxidize and decompose.

The same type of thing happens in our cells when they become oxidized due to free radicals. This oxidation can cause damage to the structure of the DNA, increasing risk of cancers.

Our bodies have a built-in defense system against free radicals, but like anything else, there’s a limit to how much they can handle. Excess exposure to free radicals overloads our body’s natural defense system and leads to damage and disease.

So, where do free radicals come from? Typically, they come from chronic inflammation, ozone, exposure to industrial chemicals, excessive ultraviolet light, radiation, cigarette smoke and air pollution.

Antioxidants neutralize or inactivate free radicals, rendering them harmless.

We get antioxidants in our diet primarily from fruits and vegetables. There are thousands of different antioxidants that have been identified.

Interestingly, it’s the specific antioxidants in fruits and vegetables that gives them their characteristic colors.

For example, the antioxidant beta-carotene gives carrots, cantaloups and pumpkin their orange colon. Lycopene provides the red we see in cherries, watermelon and tomatoes. Anthocyanins are blue-purple, and are found in eggplant, blueberries and plums.

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All antioxidants are generally cancer protective. However, each one has a specific function and tends to target specific parts of the body. Therefore, to get broad protection you’ll want to consume a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.

Hence, “eat the rainbow” every day!

The bottom-line best advice is to get your antioxidant from their original source — that is, real food, rather than supplements. The antioxidants in food work synergistically with other compounds in food to provide the best protection.

So, that apple you sliced? If you want to prevent it from oxidizing or turning brown, you can dip the slices in lemon juice. That works to protect the apple because of something in lemon juice that functions as an antioxidant. That “something” is vitamin C!

Susie Bond is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist in private practice. Contact her at [email protected]

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