The science is clear: plant-based foods are good for you — the dietary superstars. But what’s all this talk about antioxidants? I think we have all heard claims on how important they are for maintaining youth, vitality, and health and so on. But what does it all mean?
WHAT ARE ANTIOXIDANTS?
Antioxidants are compounds that primarily come from vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that may protect us from the harmful effects of oxidation and counteract the effects of damage caused by free radicals.
Without pulling out the biochemistry books — simply put…when cells in our body use oxygen, they naturally generate free radicals (by-products) which can cause cellular damage. Think of it as, when we slice an apple, it turns brown – it oxidizes and eventually rots over time. Oxidization is a natural process that results in damaged cells. Just as lemon juice may prevent an apple from quickly browning, antioxidants may help protect against oxidation in our body.
WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS?
Free radicals are molecules lacking an electron and are by-products of oxidation. And because they are missing an important electron, they will do anything to “steal” it from other cells in order to become complete. But, as they “steal” it, they don’t just damage that cell, they actually generate another free radical.
HOW ARE FREE RADICALS CREATED?
Not only can free radicals be produced by external influences, but they can also be produced naturally by your body through the process of oxidation. This has to do with your body metabolizing oxygen. It also happens when your immune system is defending itself against a virus or infection.
Through a healthy balanced diet our bodies are able to naturally neutralize and keep free radicals under control before they can do any damage. Nevertheless, our modern lifestyle and all the factors that go along with it are make it harder and harder for our natural defenses to keep up the good work.
Not only is over-processed, nutrient deprived food a factor, but we are also exposed to a lot more stress and external lifestyle factors that result in more free radicals. This includes things like:
- Processed food and beverages (additives, preservatives, dyes, flavors, industrially processed fats or sugar, etc.)
- Residues of pesticides in food
- Daily stress, both emotional and physical
- Medicines and drugs
- Excessive sun exposure (radiation from the UV rays from the sun and ozone depletion)
- Cigarette smoke
- Air pollution
- Exposure to modern day electronics
- Cleaning supplies, and other industrial chemicals
- Personal care products made from synthetic materials
- And much more…
All of these burden the body and weaken its defense against free radicals.
WHAT ROLE DO ANTIOXDIDANTS PLAY?
The main role of antioxidants is to protect the body against free radicals. Simply put, they protect us by either providing the extra electron needed to make the free radical complete, or by breaking down the free radical molecule to render it harmless. Either way, they are neutralizing and thereby stabilizing them which in effect reduces the damage done by oxidation.
Though, with all the research done to date, there is still the question as to whether antioxidants really stand up to their claim. There are many studies that suggest they can help reduce the risk of certain cancers as well heart and liver disease — but the evidence is still not 100% conclusive. Keep in mind though, that doesn’t mean they don’t serve an important purpose in our diets. There are also those who would also argue that food antioxidants are superior to antioxidant supplements which are used in performing many of these studies.
WHICH FOODS ARE RICH IN ANTIOXDIDANTS?
The foods we eat offer diverse sources of antioxidants. Here are a few of the top choices:
- Vitamin A (including carotenoids like beta-carotene): sweet potato, carrots, spinach, kale, other dark leafy greens, and winter squash
- Vitamin C: papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, and cauliflower
- Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, Swiss chard, avocado, peanuts, asparagus, beet greens, and mustard greens
Anthocyanins: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, asparagus, eggplant, red cabbage, red onions, and radishes
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): spinach, broccoli, collard greens and chard
- Glutathione: garlic, onions, broccoli, kale, collard greens, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress, asparagus, watermelon and walnuts
- Resveratrol: red grapes, blueberries and red wine
- Coenzyme Q10: as a food supplement
- Zinc: beef and lamb (sustainably raised), sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, organic free-range turkey, quinoa, and shrimp
- Selenium: (preferably from sustainable sources) tuna, shrimp, sardines, salmon, poultry, beef, lamb, cod, and scallops
THE BOTTOM LINE
The thing to remember is that antioxidants are not a miracle cure-all antidote for perfect health. The key advice remains: there really isn’t a down side to eating a varied and well-balanced diet that includes antioxidants in the form of a lots of fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables (preferably organic and local) in your daily diet. They are high in fibre, low in calories and fat, and taste really, really good. Call them super if it helps.