Written by Coach Cathy Barry, Head Coach of Eclipse Track and Field Club in Bowmanville, Ontario.
What do those delicious little fruits we lump into the category of "Berries" have in common? Well, they definitely taste amazing and flavourful but more than anything, Berries are amongst the healthiest food on earth!!!!
So, let’s go thru and discuss why they are amongst the healthiest foods and what benefits we can get from eating more berries each day.
Antioxidants - the Free Radical Killers:
No, we're not talking about radical extremists or woke thinkers, but rather those pesky little molecules that are released when you break down food in your body and when you are exposed to inflammation, smoking, air pollution, UV light and radiation. One thing is for sure, you can limit your expose to radiation and even smoke but free radicals from the breakdown of food, well that's a whole other story. With that being said, you can also limit your exposure by eating the right foods, but in today's society this is no easy feat.
Free Radicals - an explanation:
Typically, our bodies balance out free radicals from any of the sources mentioned above with antioxidants also found our bodies. However, if free radicals overwhelm our bodies in the absence of antioxidants, a condition known as oxidative stress ensues. This leads us to the question of what is oxidative stress and what does it do to us? Oxidative Stress as discussed in the National Institute of Health is "a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products". In other words, it's full out war, the aliens - oxygen reactive species (ROS) arrive on earth (your body) and wreak havoc. The humans (your cells) have response capabilities but if they are defeated, the humans being to suffer (diseases and cancers).
So how can we combat these free radicals seeing we are exposed each time our body break down food? According to the National Cancer Institute "Antioxidants are chemicals that interact with and neutralize free radicals, thus preventing them from causing damage". Our own bodies do produce antioxidants which are called endogenous antioxidants, however, our bodies rely mostly on external sources of antioxidants which are primarily driven from our diet. You can see how this becomes even more problematic for individuals who consume a diet rich in processed foods, high sugar and fats with little to no fresh fruits or vegetables. The sad but true issue is that there is a large percentage of people who consume such a poor diet each and every day.
So, without enough antioxidants in the body, the result of oxidative stress means damage to cells which can lead to short terms damage such as: memory loss, early development of wrinkles and grey hair, eyesight problems, fatigue, excessive pain in joints and muscles, headaches and a weakened immune system. Long term, exposure to free radicals can lead to cancers, heart disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, hypertension and neurological diseases such as Parkinson's.
So now let's put it all together to really understand on a "chemical" level what antioxidants do in our body: According to Harvard University: "Free radicals damage DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells. Because free radicals lack a full complement of electrons, they steal electrons from other molecules and damage those molecules in the process. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons. In making this sacrifice, they act as a natural "off" switch for the free radicals. This helps break a chain reaction that can affect other molecules in the cell and other cells in the body". For example, cancer cells will damage a cell's DNA and effectively lead cells to replicate uncontrollably and cause the body to create a new blood supply to those cells actively promoting "cancer" growth. Antioxidants like those found in Blueberries, prevent the creation of this blood supply which is needed for the cells to replicate and grow. Without nutrients and oxygen, the cancer cannot grow and spread in the body.
So, let’s go back to why Berries are one of the healthiest foods out there.
The number one reason why Berries are one of the best is that blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries have the highest antioxidant activity of commonly consumed fruits, next to pomegranates. So, it's safe to say that if you can consume berries each and every day, you can help your body to be prepared for the constant assaults it undergoes.
So now that I've said it, I can almost hear the little voices saying, but Coach Cathy, have you seen the price of berries these days??? A carton of Strawberries can run you $7.99 at times and blueberries, can be extremely expensive as well running about $6.99 for a small container. So yes, berries are expensive especially during their off seasons however, what is your alternative? A Big Mac Combo, with fries and a Coke at $12.99, finished off with a carton of ice cream - $6.99 (I might be off on the pricing) and alot of short term and long-term oxidative stress to your body or perhaps cancer in the long run? So, while berries are expensive, they can also last you for a good 4-5 days and are way more beneficial for you then the alternative of fast and processed foods. But people are not attracted to the health benefits they will gain, they want short term satisfaction of food in their stomach no matter what it costs them.
So, what other benefits you gain from eating Berries:
1. Berries can help improve blood sugar and insulin response. By helping to increase insulin sensitivity, they can help reduce high blood sugar and the insulin response to high carb meals (such as your fast-food combo). By preventing insulin spikes and reducing high blood sugar, berries play an important role in helping with diabetes and its prevention.
2. Berries are extremely high in fibre, something that most of us are definitely not getting enough of in our bodies these days. Now you might say yet again, but Coach Cathy I go to the bathroom quite regularly and I don't eat enough fibre??? While this may be the case, fibre isn't just used for staying regular and help with the passage of food waste. Berries are high in soluble fibre which actually slows down the movement of food through your digestive track, which leads to reduced hunger and an increased feeling of fullness. This helps individuals with consuming less calories and can help with weight management.
3. It goes without saying that Berries provide many beneficial and required nutrients.
In addition to being high in antioxidants, berries are high in essential vitamins and nutrients: Vitamin C, Manganese, Vitamin K1, Copper, and Folate which all have their own intrinsic benefits to the body and our health.
4. Inflammation. Berries have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Now this is especially interesting for athletes and those who are especially active. Inflammation is the body's response to injury and/or infection. Inflammation can also be caused by eating foods that cause inflammation in the body such as highly processed foods, fast food, foods high in sugar and fat. Chronic inflammation in the body because of eating poorly can contribute to long term effects such as diabetes, heart diseases, and obesity. In athletes, this is particularly important as introducing more anti-inflammatory responses to injuries in the body can help to recovery from injury sooner, reducing the stress response on cells at the injuries site and allow for the body's immune and repair response to take place.
5. Other long-term benefits of eating berries as part of a daily healthy diet is that they can help lower cholesterol levels, they may be good for you skin, protect against cancer and keep your arteries healthy. It really does not take a rocket scientist to understand that by introducing fruits that are extremely high in antioxidants the benefits are widespread not just to our cells but to our entire body.
So how much should someone consume on a daily basis? Only one cup of mixed berries per day is all you need to provide all the disease-fighting antioxidants you need in a single day. It's really not alot to ask.... or you can go back to your 3-4 pancakes and waffles drenched in syrup or mounds of bacon with deep fried potatoes and 3 eggs rounded off with a heap of ketchup. The choice is ultimately up to you whether you care about your health or not but trust me that when you get a bit older and shit starts to happen, you are going to wish you cared a bit more about what you eat.
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