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Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

The world of nutrition has evolved hugely over the last few decades as interest in the topic has grown.  Basic dietary advice is no longer enough for many people as they seek out other ways to optimise their health, combat ageing, lose weight and maximise exercise performance.

The desire to learn more has helped drive this evolution but has also exposed us to information that may be lacking in reliable science.

One topic that has always been popular is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  These terms are frequently chucked around and often oversimplified as being either good or bad for us but is it really that simple?

A little too much knowledge can be dangerous

One of my old bosses many years ago once said to me that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and this is something that always rings true when I listen to people talk about nutrition.

How has dietary advice evolved over the last couple of decades?

Not long after I started out as a nutritionist the Department of Health had just launched the five-a-day campaign (2003) to promote the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables in the diet.  This campaign was driven by the science which proved fruits and vegetables had a key role to play in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.

The conversation around diet and nutrition at this time was heavily focused on key public health messaging to help tackle obesity and heart disease.

In 2007 the Food Standards Agency launched the ‘Eatwell Plate’ to help people to understand how the five key food groups form the basis of a balanced diet. This has since been replaced with the updated ‘Eatwell Guide’ (1).

When did the conversation start to change?

After this is when the conversation began to change as more people took an interest in the topic of nutrition.

Reporting in the media began to focus more on research findings linking diet to disease (many of which were contradictory), food companies started to coin phrases such as ‘superfoods’ and many books and TV shows on the topic became hugely popular.

During this time the quality of advice given out was questioned by qualified health professionals and authors such as Ben Goldachre putting much of it down to bad science.  This also saw the demise of well-known ‘health experts’ who dominated our screens at this time.

Around this time was also when the food industry became more regulated as they had to provide evidence to support any health claims made on their products (2008).

In 2007 the UK regulator Ofcom introduced regulations banning the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar on children’s TV channels.  Bans were also introduced on the advertising of these foods on non-children’s channels during, before and after programmes aimed at those aged between four and fifteen.

The UK was the first country to introduce statutory scheduling restrictions of food advertisements to children.

The birth of social media

Around the same time came the social media explosion with the birth of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.

These social media platforms are now home to many health and wellness ambassadors who churn out advice and represent food and wellness brands in the media.  This has raised many issues as to the quality of nutrition and diet advice as people turn to unqualified influencers for information over experts (although there are now many trusted voices on these platforms).

The topic of free radicals and antioxidants

As our interest in the nitty gritty of nutrition has grown one of the topics that has continued to come up is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  The terms are chucked around willy nilly and while most people may be familiar with them, very few actually know what they are.

The problem of oversimplification

The science behind free radicals and antioxidants is actually quite complex.  One problem with delivering these concepts to people has been an oversimplification of the science which has led them to be classed as either being good or bad for you.

The idea that free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good is one that is used to sell myriad of products in the wellness market, but the science is not that straight forward.  Antioxidants are normally depicted as the superhero defending our body against ageing and chronic disease risk caused by free radical damage.

There is of course truth in this depiction but unfortunately biology is never that simple.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are very reactive chemicals, which are created when an atom or molecule (chemical that has two or more atoms) either gains or loses an electron.  The most common type of free radicals produced in living tissue are called reactive oxygen species or ROS for short and these contain oxygen.

We produce free radicals naturally through chemical processes that occur in the body such as the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy used by cells.

We are perfectly equipped to deal with free radicals but they may become an issue when they build up in high concentrations.  This can put the body in a state of oxidative stress (when free radicals outweigh antioxidants), which has the potential to damage every major component of cells when it occurs over a prolonged period of time. The most significant damage is that caused to DNA, which is thought to play a role in the development of many health conditions including heart disease and cancer (2).

The most likely cause of excess free radicals in the body are due to a combination of environmental, lifestyle and dietary factors which include pollution, stress, smoking, alcohol, sun exposure, infection and overconsumption of foods high in bad fats and sugar.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.  These chemicals are able to interact with free radicals and neutralising them without getting damaged or becoming a free radical themselves. Whilst the body relies on external source of antioxidants, which are gleaned from the diet, it’s also able to make some such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione.

Dietary antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and grains, which are all a rich source.  Examples of dietary antioxidants include lycopene and beta carotene found in red, orange and green vegetables as well as vitamins A, C, E and minerals such as selenium.  Plants also contain compounds such as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and are found in foods such as berries and raw cacao.

Are free radicals always bad for us?

Most people equate free radicals to poor health but there is more to the story as they also play an important role in many normal cellular responses.

The immune system uses free radicals to help kill foreign invaders (phagocytes) in the body, which are just one of many ingredients in a cocktail of chemicals released in this defence mechanism, which is known as an oxidative burst.

Another interesting example of where free radicals may be beneficial is linked to exercise, particularly amongst athletes. Free radicals may play a key role in the benefits gained from exercise, which goes against much of the information provided on this topic.

One of the benefits of exercise is that it helps to improve insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing as the body becomes more attuned to maintaining blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance has the opposite effect resulting in higher insulin and blood sugar levels, which form part of the aetiology of diseases such as diabetes.

Research has shown that the oxidative stress (excess free radicals vs antioxidants) induced by exercise actually promotes insulin sensitivity and triggers an internal mechanism to protect the body against the potential damage from free radicals (3).  Interestingly, the same research has also shown that flooding the body with antioxidants (mostly in the form of supplements) may inhibit this health benefit from occurring.

These and similar findings have prompted experts in the field of sports nutrition to question the use of antioxidant supplements as part of their prescribed diet regime.

Are antioxidants always good?

The reputation of antioxidants has evolved over the decades into something of a panacea for good health.  Early research many decades ago identified their role in the ageing process and their association with health has stuck.

There is no doubt that antioxidants have a key role to play in the aetiology of disease and cell ageing, but this doesn’t mean that overdosing on them will help you to live longer, stop you getting sick or prevent wrinkles.

Antioxidant supplements

Supplements containing antioxidants have always been popular but the evidence to support their use in the reduction of disease risk is often lacking and often contradictory.

Supplements have their place and as the name suggests this is to supplement the diet to make up for any shortfalls that may exist when your diet may be compromised for whatever reason.  Public Health England currently recommend we supplement our diet with vitamin D during the winter months in the absence of sunlight and it has long been advised that women take folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy.

Supplements are also useful for young children, older adults and those following strict diets such as veganism.  In such cases there may be a greater risk of deficiency.

In some cases, supplements could do more harm than good and especially high doses of antioxidants.

One example is the link between beta carotene supplements and lung cancer as shown in the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. This report found that there was strong evidence to show that taking high-dose beta carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer in both current and former smokers (4).

It’s all about balance  

Adopting a healthy diet which includes plenty of plant-based foods, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, will ensure a good intake of antioxidants. Leading a healthy lifestyle which involves being active, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and addressing stress and sleep issues can help to reduce excess free radicals.

I get that this may be easier said than done and behaviour change is a tricky thing that often challenges our ability maintain a healthy way of living.  However, focusing on the information and advice which is supported by science is always going to be a better long-term option than seeking out quick-fix fads.  A faddy approach to your health is  not only likely to be short-lived but may in fact be more detrimental to your health.

References  

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2231253611110048
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680430/
  4. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer
National curry week 2018 – health benefits of curry

National curry week 2018 – health benefits of curry

National curry week 2018

Curry is a word that typically conjures up an image of late-night dining following one too many beers after work on a Friday night or an unhealthy take-away food, but I’m going to put myself out there as saying this reputation is poorly misplaced.

Any food within a particular context could be deemed as being unhealthy but if you break down the components of curry and remove the beers and comfort eating aspect then what you’re left with is actually very healthy.

The origins of curry

The UK has adopted curry as a ‘national dish’ with thousands of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants creating British-Asian meals we’ve all become familiar with such as chicken tikka masala, Balti and vindaloo.  The word ‘curry’ was invented by the British when they ruled India and adapted from the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning sauce.  This word has now become an umbrella term to describe dishes that have originated from the Indian subcontinent, but is a definition reserved for the British.

India consists of 28 states with most of these having their own regional cuisines, few of which include the word ‘curry’.  The curry powder we have been accustomed to wouldn’t feature in your typical Indian kitchen and is a British creation, which was developed by Indian spice merchants.  The closest Indian comparison is a blend called garam masala that tends to be used towards the end of cooking.

Traditional dishes originating or inspired by Indian cuisine are characterised by the extensive use of spices, which define the unique flavour of this cuisine.  Indian cooking also includes many plant foods such as vegetables, pulses and lentils that are also thought to have a multitude of positive health benefits.

Variety is key

India is one of many countries whose mealtimes are a sharing affair, which involves a number of different dishes mostly cooked from scratch. This way of eating not only illustrates the positive impact of eating together and sharing mealtimes but also includes eating a wide variety of foods offering a broad spectrum of nutrients.  It’s a fair argument that such cultures dedicate a lot of time to preparing meals and often have an inherited knowledge of recipes and cooking, which is very different to our time-stretched culture that has become over reliant on quick-fix meals and snacking.  However, drawing inspiration from such cultural dining practices may help to improve the way we tend to eat in the Western world.

The health benefits of spices

Many spices are used in Indian cuisine and also feature as a key component of Ayurvedic medicine, which is one of the oldest of traditional medicine systems originating from India thousands of years ago.  Spices are commonly defined as an aromatic part of a tropical plant, which includes roots, barks, flowers and seeds, most of which are Asian in origin. Advances in scientific research has helped to identify and explain some of the benefits associated with spices and how they may contribute to health and the reduction of disease risk.

Spices fight Inflammation

Inflammation is essential to life and is the body’s natural response to injury or infection.  The flip side is that inflammation can have a harmful effect and research has shown that factors such as obesity, smoking, stress and a sedentary lifestyle can promote inflammation to the point at which is contributes to a variety of diseases (1)

Acute inflammation is characterised by redness, swelling, pain and heat, which is a protective response designed to heal the body and restore normal tissue function.  Chronic inflammation can begin in the same way but morph into a state that lingers over a long period of time, failing to respond to the immune systems attempts to eliminate the problem. This low-level inflammation can also occur even when there is no injury or disease.  When the immune system becomes uncontrolled in this way, white blood cells can attack healthy tissues and organs, setting up chronic inflammatory processes that are thought to play a key part in many diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s.

Alongside maintaining a healthy body weight and making healthy lifestyle choices, diet is thought to have a role to play in helping to reduce inflammation.  Research has shown that spices possess anti-inflammatory properties and whilst the findings are mixed, they’re still promising and suggest a benefit to including these foods in your diet.

Spices act as antioxidants 

Spices along with fruits and vegetables are a key source of natural antioxidants in the diet.  These antioxidants help to reduce oxidative stress in the body, which is caused by a high concentration of free radicals in cells and tissues induced by a number of factors such as excess exposure to UV, stress, polluted food, smoking and adverse environmental conditions. If the body becomes overwhelmed with free radicals and is unable to regulate them it can alter lipids, proteins and DNA, potentially triggering disease.

It’s worth pointing out here that free radicals are a natural by-product of metabolism, which is defined as the chemical processes that occur within the body such as those involved in converting food into energy.  Free radicals are essential to life as the body’s ability to turn food into chemical energy relies on a chain reaction of free radicals, which are also a crucial part of the immune system, which help to attack pathogens (foreign invaders).

The term ‘antioxidant’ is somewhat overused in the health arena and whilst achieving a balance between free radicals and antioxidant intake is key, they shouldn’t be be viewed as a panacea to good health.  Many foods contain nutrients that act as antioxidants and whilst eating plenty of these foods such as spices may help to protect against the damage caused by excess free radicals that can build up in the body, it’s important to make lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking, drinking less, managing stress and spending less time in the sun rather than relying solely on such foods and supplements to counteract the impact of these lifestyle habits.

The antioxidant activity of spices is related to their chemical composition, mostly the presence of polyphenolic and other biologically active compounds.  The primary antioxidants and biologically active compounds in spices include flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, essential oils and alkaloids (2, 3).  These all behave in different ways such as flavonoids have the ability to scavenge free radicals and form complexes with catalytic metal ions that render them inactive (4).

A source of minerals

All spices are a source of minerals such as potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.  Amongst all the minerals in spices, iron exists in the greatest concentration.  This mineral is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells and is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide.  Food surveys have shown that more than 27% of women in the UK have inadequate intakes of iron in their diet and low levels are compounded by monthly menstrual blood losses (5).  Including spices in your diet can be a really useful way to boost your intake of minerals such as iron.

Reducing salt in your diet

Spices enhance the flavour of food and can help to reduce the amount of salt used in cooking, which is good for people with high blood pressure.  Adding spices to food is also a good way to ‘tantalise the taste buds’ and there are many ways to include these in our cooking in the place of salt.

Interesting ways to include more Indian spices into your diet

  • Add turmeric to scrambled egg
  • Add curry powder to boiled rice
  • Use spices to create rubs and marinades for meats
  • Spices such as cumin and ground coriander work well in salad dressings
  • Try adding curry powder or garam masala to traditional homecooked dishes such as shepherd’s pie for an Indian twist
  • Spice up a jar of tomato cook-in-sauce with Indian spices that could include garam masala, curry powder, mustard seeds, turmeric or fresh curry leaves.
  • Try making homemade cashew nut milk with turmeric (great served hot or cold). Add 100g of raw cashew nuts, 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 1 tsp of ground cinnamon and 2 tsp of honey to a high-powered blender with 500ml of water then blitz until smooth.  You can loosen the consistency by adding more water if you like.
  • Add curry powder or garam masala to basic vegetable soup recipe or even shop-bought fresh soups for an Indian twist.

Plant-based eating

There are many benefits associated with eating more plant-based foods.  As a nation we do not eat enough fruits and vegetables with only a third of people managing to meet the five-a-day guidance (5).  Plant foods also provide a rich source of fibre that has been shown to help with good digestion and reduce the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes and help with weight loss.  In the UK it has been shown that less than 10% of adults achieve the recommended daily intake of 30g per day (5).

Anecdotally, many people find vegetables boring to eat and often say that they don’t enjoy the flavour.  In my experience of cooking with people, I have found that with a little inspiration, even the most disliked vegetables can be reinvented with the use of spices and become something completely different.  Spices can also be used to add an Indian twist to vegetarian dishes.

Indian spices are always a great way to spice food and these are just a few ways to turn a plain old vegetable or vegetarian dish into something that’s irresistibly delicious:

  • Rub cauliflower with curry paste and roast in the oven.
  • Combine a 400g can of chickpeas (drained) with 1 tbsp of garam masala or curry powder and roast in the oven at 180C for 30 minutes.
  • Stir-fry okra with chopped red onion, ginger and cherry tomatoes, and fresh curry leaves.
  • Fry mustard seeds and crushed coriander seeds in a pan with a little oil until they begin to pop. Take them off the heat and stir through blanched green beans with a little oil.
  • I’m always looking for ways to make cooking tofu more enjoyable and found that it lends itself well to Indian cuisine and is a great alternative to paneer. I also discovered recently that you can bake tofu, which gives it a firm meaty texture.  You need to choose extra firm varieties and it can be marinated before or after cooking.
  • Learn to make a basic dhal recipe such as this one from mine and Lily’s cookbook

Healthy curry food swaps

There’s no doubt that many of us choose to eat curry on a night out or as take-away on a night in, but it doesn’t need to be a calorie laden affair.

  • Rather than ordering a meal solely for yourself, opt for sharing and choose plenty of plant-based options such as lentils and vegetables
  • Try choosing tomato-based curries over those laden with cream or coconut milk, which can be high in saturated fat
  • Try choosing oven cooked (tandoor) meats such as chicken and teaming them with vegetable dishes
  • Ditch the breads such as chapatti and naan

The true health benefits of curry are often overshadowed by the reputation this type of food has acquired.  The use of spices and plant-based foods are at the root of the health benefits associated with this the of cuisine.

Try this healthy vegetarian curry recipe, which not only provides many of the health benefits associated with South Asian cuisine but tastes bloody great!

 

Butternut, lentil and coconut curry

Serves 4 (very generously)

Ingredients

1 butternut squash

2 low-sodium vegetable stock cubes

1 tbsp coconut or groundnut oil

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Large thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and grated

1 red chilli, finely chopped

400g can coconut milk

1/2 tsp of sea salt

250g red lentils

2 tsp turmeric

Pinch of black pepper

2 large handfuls of spinach

1 large lime, juiced

2 large handfuls of coriander, finely chopped

 

Method

  1. Peel the squash, halve and remove the seeds then cut into 1 inch chunks.
  2. Dissolve the stock cubes in 1000ml of boiling water.
  3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over a medium heat.
  4. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and chilli then fry gently for about 5 minutes until the ingredients are soft.
  5. Turn up the heat and add the squash, stock and coconut milk to the pan and bring to the boil. Check the curry for seasoning and add salt. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and place the lid on the pan then cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and add the lentils, turmeric and black pepper then simmer for a further 15-20 minutes over a medium heat until the squash and lentils are tender. Add a little more water of the curry starts to dry out.
  7. Take the curry off the heat and stir through the spinach, lime juice and coriander. The curry should be a thick consistency but add more water if needed.
  8. Serve in large bowls.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22226987
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27881064
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411016302024
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618098/
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined