Colorful foods. More than just pretty.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2011

Eons before animals began to populate the earth plants were developing ways to protect themselves against the damaging effects of radiation, noxious gases, sunlight and other factors that produced free radicals. There are thousands of these highly reactive chemical substances that interfere with the plant's ability to grow and reproduce. The plant world survived by developing thousands of antioxidants to counteract the damage. When animals arose on the planet they encountered the same causes of free radical formation. By ingesting plants with their stores of antioxidants, animals acquired the ability to avoid the harm of free radicals.

Free radicals speed up the aging process, cause breaks in DNA that can lead to cancer, alter the protein in the lens to produce cataracts and damage enzyme systems. The body can't produce enough antioxidants to combat all these effects so we need to get them from plants. In their temperate environment, Stone Agers found such a wide variety of plant species that their diet included the antioxidants that they needed. The typical Western diet not only includes few varieties of plant foods, we are exposed to free radicals that our ancestors never faced, such as pollution, tobacco smoke, prescription drugs and new forms of radiation. Physical activity, digestion and response to infection generate free radicals as well.

Commercial advertising touts pills and potions that offer antioxidants but the best sources are in plant products that provide other nutritional benefits as well. Bright colors and spicy flavors characterize plants that offer the highest levels of antioxidants. A few examples include sweet and chili peppers, carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, apples, citrus, rosemary, curry and cinnamon. Except in the Far North, every culture on every continent offers components in its cuisine that satisfy our need for antioxidants. Scientists have even verified that red wine, dark chocolate and coffee have some genuine health benefits because of their high antioxidant content. The fast food cuisine — if it may be called that — offers the fewest antioxidants.

There is no single key to good health and the avoidance of disease. Eating lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables does lower the risk of cancer but those who enjoy such a diet are likely to have other good health habits as well. They are more likely to be non-smokers, exercise regularly, maintain normal body weight, prefer fish and fowl over red meat and get regular medical checkups.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at