There's a battle going on in your cells.
If you lose, you could end up with diabetes, heart disease or cancer -- but local experts say you have a powerful ally if you are eating enough fruits and vegetables.
THE VILLAIN: FREE RADICALS
Free radicals are molecules that have one extra electron and react with each other to damage DNA, said Rod Hansen, associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University.
Free radicals come from cigarette smoke, ultraviolet rays, dietary fat and even strenuous exercise, added Joan Thompson, also a professor of nutrition at WSU.
They increase the risk of biological damage in the form of coronary artery disease, cancer, cataracts, neurological disease, pulmonary disease and immune disease, she said.
Free radicals are also linked to the aging process, according to Caroline Shugart, employee wellness coordinator and registered dietitian at Utah State University.
THE HERO: ANTIOXIDANTS
Thompson said the structure of an antioxidant is the perfect foe for free radicals.
"Antioxidants are chemical compounds that can donate an electron to another chemical without becoming more reactive itself. .aa.aa. If there is an ample amount of antioxidants around, damage can be controlled," she said.
Antioxidants can both prevent damage to the body's cells and help repair damage already done by free radicals, said Katie Wewer, registered dietitian at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
Here's another way to look at it: Getting antioxidants is the best way to cleanse the body, said McKay-Dee Hospital registered dietitian Charlotte Scott.
"The wonderful thing about them is they strengthen our body's immunity and get rid of toxins. They clean out and get rid of things we don't need. It's pretty incredible how wonderful they are," she said.
Hansen agrees: "We need antioxidants to quench free radicals. They help with the integrity and wellness of the cell."
Where to get them
There are hundreds of antioxidants, said Hansen, but the most common are vitamins E, C and A.
"Berries and other fruits have to defend themselves against the environment and sun, so they produce a lot of antioxidants. When we eat (fruits), we can absorb the benefit at different and varying quantities," he said.
Although some foods, like blueberries, green tea and dark chocolate, get a lot of hype for their antioxidants, Hansen said the best plan is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.
"Some people think there is a super fruit or super berry -- a panacea that will help us. Not true. You need a lot of different kinds. Eat various kinds of fruits and vegetables. We're coming back to five a day," he said.
"Not just one fruit or vegetable is the best," Scott agrees. "Every fruit and vegetable has antioxidants and they all work together to strengthen the body. Fruits and vegetables have been underestimated in their ability to provide our body with health and what we really need. The bottom line is they strengthen the body's immunity and ability to do what it was meant to do. Our body can heal itself if it is properly nourished."
In addition to fresh produce, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables retain antioxidants as well, Thompson said.
Wewer recommends carrots, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, bright orange and dark green fruit for vitamin A; citrus fruit, green peppers, broccoli and green leafy vegetables for vitamin C; and whole grains, nuts, seeds, leafy vegetables and vegetable oil for vitamin E.
"The darker or richer in color, the more antioxidants and phytonutrients," she said. "It's good to have a variety of color. Your plate should look like a rainbow of color versus whites and browns, which is often more typical. We need five cups of fruits and vegetables every day to get the nutrition we need."
Shugart warns against eating processed foods with antioxidants added.
"Is it a great idea to have a high-sugar energy drink with green tea and antioxidants? We shouldn't kid ourselves. Highly processed junk food with vitamins is still highly processed junk food," she said.
"How about that box of sugar cereal with added antioxidants? Again, poor choice. Highly processed foods, even with added vitamins or minerals, are still terrible choices and degrade health and well-being."
Thompson said she supplements vitamins A, E, and C above the Food and Drug Administration recommended levels to be sure she is getting enough antioxidants and because foods high in Vitamin E, like nuts, seeds, and oils, are also high in fat.
"I would recommend the same to others, depending on the stresses they impose on their bodies," she said.
But Wewer said, outside of a multivitamin, antioxidants should come from food.
"I prefer to see people eat healthy foods versus taking all these supplements and eating burgers and fries," she said.
Shugart isn't a fan of any type of supplement.
"Some scientists and consumers seem to think we can isolate specific compounds from foods, then ingest them as supplements to get great health benefits. It's funny that they think they can do better than nature can do. Take a few compounds from food, isolate them, put them in pill form and we seem to think we know the complexity of this nature process. It's absurd," she said.
"Foods are complex. We have evolved together in a wonderful dance in nature. Real food with its thousands of chemical compounds in a complex structure keeps us healthy and strong and well."