Our bodies are battlegrounds against infection and diseases. Normal body functions such as breathing or physical activity and other lifestyle habits such as smoking produce substances called free radicals that attack healthy cells. When these healthy cells are weakened, they are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers. Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and carotenoids, which include beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Among the 600 or more carotenoids in foods, beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein are well-known leaders in the fight to reduce the damage from free radicals. Foods high in carotenoids may be effective allies against prostate cancer (beta-carotene); cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum (lycopene); and may help decrease your risk of macular degeneration (lutein).
Foods high in carotenoids include red, orange, deep-yellow and some dark-green leafy vegetables, like tomatoes, carrots, spinach, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, winter squash and broccoli.
Research has demonstrated the broad role of vitamin E in promoting health. The main role of vitamin E is as an antioxidant. It helps protect your body from cell damage that can lead to cancer, heart disease and cataracts as we age. Vitamin E works with other antioxidants like vitamin C to offer protection from some chronic diseases. Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, salad dressings, margarine, wheat germ, whole-grain products, seeds, nuts and peanut butter.
Perhaps the best-known antioxidant, vitamin C offers a wide-variety of health benefits, including protecting from infection and damage to body cells, helping produce collagen (the connective tissue that holds bones and muscles together); protecting your body from bruising by keeping capillary walls and blood vessels firm; and helping in the absorption of iron and folate.
To take advantage of these benefits, eat foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits and tangerines), strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and potatoes.
Challenges to Healthful Eating
The best way to build a healthful eating plan is to eat well-balanced meals and snacks each day and to enjoy a wide variety of foods. Eating at least 2 cups of fruits and 2 ½ cups of vegetables daily is a good start for healthful living.
However, there may be circumstances that make healthful eating a challenge. If you are on a severely restricted low-calorie weight loss diet (less than 1,200 calories per day) or are of child-bearing age or just don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, a multivitamin or mineral supplement may be beneficial. Ask a registered dietitian or your doctor whether you need a supplement. A registered dietitian can evaluate your eating pattern and determine whether a supplement is right for you.