Antioxidants, Free Radicals and Trans Fatty Acids: The Good, The Sometimes Bad and the Ugly

Free Radicals are molecules that have lost an electron and in turn they steal electrons from another molecule turning it into a free radical.  This is a process known as oxidation and it can be very damaging to our cells.  Oxidative stress, the stress on our bodies due to oxidation, is believed to cause aging and a host of negative effects including, damaging other molecules and tissues, gene mutations, macular degeneration, coronary artery blockage, and mitochondrial damage.  Free radicals are made during energy production in the body, also during infection and inflammatory responses.  There are also environmental sources of free radicals including UV light, air pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticides and car exhaust.  The good news is that free radicals are not all bad.  Their benefits include the killing of microbes, activating genes, liver detoxification, and blood vessel relaxation.  This is why it is important to balance free radicals with antioxidants. 

Antioxidants are molecules that donate one of their electrons to free radicals to diminish or eliminate their damaging effects.  There are many different antioxidants and the good news is that many of them can be found in the delicious food of the eating for health model.  For example, the antioxidant vitamin C can be found in red peppers, guavas, kale and parsley.  Vitamin A is found in foods like liver, whole milk and dark, leafy vegetables.  There are also antioxidant minerals found in our food.  Zinc is found in oysters, pumpkin seeds, gingerroot and pecans.  Selenium is found in wheat germ, brazil nuts, wheat bran and calf’s liver.  Antioxidant phytonutrients like lignans, found in flaxseeds, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and isoflavonoids, found in soy and red clover, are also great for keeping the body’s balance of free radicals. 

Trans fatty acids are also known as hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils.  This process involves a hydrogen molecule being added to naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acid molecules to make an oil (usually canola) more saturated thus causing it to be solid or semisolid at room temperature.  Partially hydrogenated oils, which are found in margarine as well as many shelf-safe, pre-packaged foods like cookies, cakes, and crackers, are very harmful to the function of your cell membranes and can interfere with your body’s ability to use essential fatty acids.  This results in essential fatty acid deficiency which can cause arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, constipation, immune weakness, and fatigue. 

References:

Bauman, Ed. Ph. D. (2012).  Foundations of Nutrition.  Bauman College

Bauman, Ed. Ph.D. NC103.3 Nutritional Biochemistry. (Powerpoint Slides).

Bland, Jeffery S. Ph.D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach. Washington: The Institute for Functional Medicine.

Murray, Michael. N.D. (2005).  The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.  New York, New York: Atria Books