Whole grain cereals and millets apart from being rich sources of dietary fibre, starch, invisible fat, minerals and vitamins also contain phytochemicals such as lignans, and phenolic compounds that function as antioxidants. There is increasing scientific evidence which shows that consuming whole grains and cutting down on refined grains have been linked to a reduced risk of obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, Type II Diabetes Mellitus, heart diseases, hypertension, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Wheat germ is rich in vitamin E. Oats contains a unique antioxidant avenanthramide, that helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol. Millets such as jowar, bajra, ragi are good sources of lignans that work as antioxidants safeguarding the body cells and tissues against damage due to free radical formation and are also thought be protective against hormone-linked cancers such as breast cancer.
Pseudocereals such as amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa have gained a lot of significance in recent years owing to the many health benefits they confer. Buckwheat contains a high level of a flavonoid rutin which possess anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties and has also been shown to control blood pressure, improve circulation and prevent LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessels thereby reducing the risk of developing atherosclerosis. Amaranth is a source of dietary phytosterols, which has been shown to have cholesterol-lowering properties while quinoa contains saponins and flavonoids which function as antioxidants protecting the body from the damaging effects of free radicals.
Soyabean is rich in isoflavones which have antioxidant properties and potent phytoestrogens that have been reported to have estrogen like activity when ingested. Studies have shown that soy isoflavones reduce the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer, lower total serum cholesterol and raise the HDL cholesterol, slow bone density loss in menopausal and post-menopausal women and lessen menopausal symptoms like hot flushes and mood swings.
Nuts and oils seeds are also rich in antioxidant compounds. Groundnuts contain resveratrol, a polyphenol antioxidant, which has been found to have protective function against cancers, heart disease, degenerative nerve disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and viral/fungal infection. Sesame seeds have sesamol and sesamin which have antioxidant properties and help lower blood pressure. It is also rich in Vitamin E and lignans. Flaxseeds contain the antioxidant phytochemical lignins, which have been shown to have anticancer properties.
Rice bran oil is another antioxidant rich food. It contains a natural anti-oxidant Oryzanol which helps to reduce the levels of triglycerides, total and LDL cholesterol while maintaining the HDL levels and is also naturally rich in Vitamin E.
Spices and herbs which are an integral part of Indian cuisine are chockfull of antioxidants and other compounds that have medicinal value. Garlic and onion both contain powerful compounds – Diallylsulphide triallyl methyl sulphide, diallyl disulphide ajoene, and allicin that have antioxidant, anti bacterial, anti fungal, anti-cancerous, hypo-lipedemic and hypo-cholesterolemic properties. Garlic also helps reduce the thickness of the blood thereby preventing the formation of a blood clot. Research studies have shown that onion contains similar compounds that make the platelets less sticky and thereby preventing them from sticking to each other, forming clots that can block the blood flow. Crushing garlic flakes helps activate allicin making it more effective.
Another spice that possesses powerful antioxidant properties is turmeric or haldi. Turmeric is very rich in a particular type of phenolic compound called curcuminoids or curcumin which is a powerful antioxidant. Haldi is a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent that is useful in disinfecting cuts and burns. It also possesses anti-inflammatory, antiviral, hypolipidemic and hypoglycemic effects. Studies have shown that curcumin has antimutagenic and anti-cancerous properties.
Cinnamon (tikki or dalchini) is a commonly used spice in Indian cooking that is rich in polyphenols and is being studied for its role in the management of many chronic diseases. Cinnamon contains cinnamaldehyde, which helps the body fight infections thereby boosting the body’s immune system. It also contains — methylhydroxy chalcone polymer (MHCP) which has been shown to be a potent antioxidant. Research studies have shown that MHCP helps increase insulin sensitivity thereby regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the levels of serum triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.
To conclude, the synergistic action of vitamins, minerals, fibre and plant phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and spices helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, rigorous scientific studies have failed to prove the same with antioxidant supplements. Hence we should obtain antioxidants from food rather than from supplements.
(The writer is a Consultant Nutritionist with 17 years of experience, practising at Panaji and Margao)