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Spicing Up Your Meals
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by Carol E. Torgan, Ph.D.

Free radicals are routinely generated in the body by normal metabolism. They are highly reactive chemical species (in tech speak, a molecule that contains one or more unpaired electrons in its outer orbit). There are also environmental sources of free radicals such as air pollution, smoke and alcohol. Free radicals are involved in chemical reactions that can cause damage to fats, proteins and DNA. They have been shown to have a role in diseases such as cancer, stroke, arthritis and heart disease, and also play a part in aging.

Exercise increases the generation of free radicals. Following strenuous exercise, especially in individuals who are unaccustomed to working out, the generation of free radicals can lead to muscle damage. However, free radicals are not entirely bad; they generate cellular signals that lead to beneficial adaptations (in muscle, this translates into the improvements that result from exercise training). In addition, exercise training itself appears to improve the antioxidant capacity of the body.

Vitamins C and E

The body has an elaborate defense system to neutralize free radicals and prevent cell damage. This system partially relies on consumption of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene. If some vitamin C or E is good, then it's logical to assume that a whole lot would be even better. Studies show that vitamin C or E supplementation may offer some protection against muscle damage following strenuous exercise, but they don't have any beneficial effects on endurance or strength. Although it's tempting to take excess vitamins and minerals as a type of "insurance policy", megadoses and long-term use of excess antioxidants may be harmful. If you simply must pop a pill, choose vitamin C; it's water soluble so any excess will end up in your urine, and the only damage that will occur will be to your wallet.

Red Wine and Green Tea

Last month, at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, a group of anti-oxidants with names that sound like fuel additives (polyphenols, tannins and isoflavanoids) appeared in the spotlight. This group is found in red wine (in order of abundance: merlot, pinot noir, red zinfandel); in fruits such as apples, apricots and bananas; in legumes (chick peas, peas); in green and black tea; and in many spices such as oregano, rosemary, sage, basil and thyme. In laboratory studies rats given green tea had elevated blood levels of antioxidants, and various spices were shown to inhibit the growth of cultured tumor cells. Although these antioxidants appear promising, their effects in muscle are presently unknown.

The Bottom Line

Maintain a well-balanced, healthy diet. A good rule of thumb is to try to limit your grocery shopping to the perimeter of the store where the least processed selections are located. As the adage goes, "eat seasonally, buy locally". Enjoy the bounty of the summer– visit your local farmer's market and stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables which are packed with antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. Augment your cooking with spices and break open a bottle of red wine.

Resources

Healthy recipes:

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/recipes.htm

http://www.cookinglight.com/

Information on dietary supplements: http://ods.od.nih.gov/index.asp

Directory of farmers markets by state: http://www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm

Carol Torgan is an exercise physiologist and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. You can contact her at ceetee01 at yahoo.com.

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