Antioxidants are superheroes that don’t mind being in the spotlight. You see antioxidants everywhere anymore. The word “antioxidant” is touted by nutritionists, researchers, doctors, and fitness warriors as something beneficial to the body, and the food industry has taken this view and plastered “antioxidants” on their marketing content. However, even with this widespread knowledge of the word, not many people actually understand how antioxidants work.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what antioxidants are, what they’re for, and how to include more in your diet, keep reading. I’m covering everything you need need to know about antioxidants.
What Are Antioxidants?
Definitions of antioxidants are numerous, but the most common one is that antioxidants are substances that aid in the prevention or mitigate the damage caused by free radicals to cells that are produced as a negative reaction to certain stressors and environmental factors.
The entities that cause this reaction are called free radicals, and the reaction itself is known as oxidation.
What Is Oxidation?
Think about what happens when you leave cut apple slices out in the fresh air. Over time, the white of the apple turns brown. This is the process known as oxidation. In scientific terms, oxidation happens when molecules share electrons with one another. While oxidation is essential to life and is necessary for many things to take place, such as cellular respiration, where glucose that is consumed by the foods we eat is oxidized by oxygen, it can also cause damage.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are brigands with one or more electrons that don’t have pairs. Electrons like having friends, so when unpaired electrons come around, it can result in volatile, unstable molecules. To stabilize itself, the free radicals have to steal electrons or give an electron away. In the event that another molecule loses an electron, the molecule becomes oxidized and transforms into a free radical, too.
This new free radical will repeat the process of either losing or stealing electrons from other molecules, eventually causing permanent damage to whatever the molecules are a part of.
However, the presence of an antioxidant can act as a protector of the defenseless molecule. Antioxidants do this by acting like a martyr who gives away their own electrons to the free radical, thus stabilizing the electrons and stopping the domino effect from ever happening.
Unlike molecules, the antioxidant has a superpower that allows it to sacrifice a piece of itself without becoming destabilized. They only deactivate.
Not all free radicals are evil and do terrible things to your body. Some can be employed by the immune system to aid in the battle against foreign invaders. There are also free radicals that are created by our bodies through exercise, stress, and diet. Yet, if you are under the presence of too much stress and contaminants, such as tobacco smoke and alcohol or pollution, the free radical exposure can overload the body.
When that happens, you get instances of cancer, premature aging, and other diseases.
Different Types of Antioxidants
There’s a broad variety of antioxidants present in food. Not all antioxidants are equal, either. For the purpose of this discussion, antioxidants get divided into two groups:
- Water soluble
- Fat soluble
The water-soluble antioxidants are those that dissolve into anything comprised largely of water, include blood and intracellular fluid. Most water-soluble antioxidants do their jobs in and around the cells. Meanwhile, fat-soluble antioxidants get dissolved into the fat stores and act on cellular membranes
Now, antioxidants of both categories can come from a number of sources, both from production within the body and occurring naturally in foods. Antioxidants can also be used as additives in foods where they are usually not present, such as tocopherols (Vitamin E) in cereals to preserve freshness or calcium and Vitamin D in orange juice.
Because there are thousands of substances that can behave as an antioxidant, it is impossible to make a full list. Furthermore, most antioxidants have other tasks within the body; but these roles aren’t interchangeable, so you need a rich diet full of variety.
Here is a summarized list of the most important antioxidants:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Flavonoids and flavones
Food Sources of Antioxidants
Did you know that in the Western diet, coffee is considered the best source of antioxidants? It’s simply because Americans can’t get enough of it. Also, Americans don’t necessarily eat enough of a balanced diet to get their antioxidants from anywhere else.
It’s sad and amazing all at once.
Thus, I stress the importance of a colorful diet full of different types of foods so you can get the full rainbow of antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Aiming to fill your diet with more superfoods is a great way to start, because “superfoods” often have more than one antioxidant.
Here are some foods rich in antioxidants:
- Bell peppers
- Sunflower seeds
- Leafy greens
- Green and black tea
- Dark chocolate
- Matcha powder
- Maca powder
- Goji berries
- Fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)
- Spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, oregano, basil
- Chia and flax
As you can see from this list, these foods are probably going to be on your plate already. If not, you now have a reason to nibble dark chocolate, sip green tea, and eat a vegetable-stuffed omelet. Keep in mind that when you pair foods, you are getting a number of antioxidants that work synergistically. For example, when you eat an omelet with spinach, bell peppers, and garlic, and tomatoes, you are getting Vitamin A, beta-carotene, selenium, lycopene, and a bunch of other vitamins and minerals that are essential to your health.
Loading up on antioxidants might seem like an excellent idea, but you have to remember that you could get too much of a good thing. Instead of using a supplement, which could end up giving you toxic levels of some vitamins and nutrients, it’s much smarter to eat a wider range of foods.
Antioxidant supplements come with risks of overdosing and raising chances of various cancers, accelerating tumor growth, disrupting certain medications, and causing hormonal imbalances.
Antioxidants are incredible molecules that protect the human body from free radical damage, which could lead to a list of diseases if left unchecked. In order to get the most antioxidants, be sure to seek out vitamins and minerals in their most natural form—your next meal—and opt for more fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants are a must for individuals who want to stay healthy and ward off any debilitating diseases, so eat up!
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