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We hear a lot these days about antioxidants and how they are important for our health and well being. We even get recommendations on what foods we can eat or which supplements we can use to get these coveted antioxidants. The fact remains that even though we know about how great antioxidants are, many of us really don’t have a good understanding of what antioxidants are and why we need to incorporate them into our diets.
In this article, I will break down the ins and outs of antioxidants to show how they help our bodies function. I’ll also show why we need antioxidants and foods high in this essential nutrient to help us achieve the best health outcomes.
What Is An Antioxidant and Why Do We Need It?
So what exactly is an antioxidant? Let’s break down the word to its two parts: “anti” meaning against and “oxidant” meaning a substance formed from oxidation or the removal of electrons from a compound. A good example of oxidation in nature is rust which happens when iron reacts with oxygen and loses its electrons. So essentially, an antioxidant prevents the loss of electrons from one substance when combined with oxygen. But how does this apply to us and our bodies?
The Wikipedia definition of antioxidants gives us a clearer understanding of how they work inside our bodies. It states:
Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals, thereby leading to chain reactions that may damage the cells of organisms. Antioxidants such as thiols or ascorbic acid terminate these chain reactions.
This definition explains that chemical reactions that naturally occur in our bodies may produce free radicals or independent molecules that if left alone, can cause oxidative stress or “rust” in the body. This oxidative stress, if not contained can lead to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Antioxidants prevent this damage from taking root and spreading in our bodies.
Where Can We Get Antioxidants?
Now that we have a basic understanding of antioxidants the next question is where can we get this compound that is so indispensable for our good health?
The good news is that we naturally produce antioxidants inside our bodies. Much in the same way that we are able to synthesize some of our nutrients, (for example Vitamin D when we’re exposed to sunlight), we do not produce sufficient quantities for our viability. This is where we have to look to external sources to supplement some of the nutrients we naturally produce.
Antioxidants are among the compounds we naturally produce, but still, need additional amounts from the foods we eat or any supplements we take. The great news is that there are plenty of fresh, healthy and delicious sources of antioxidants present in many of our favorite foods.
Foods High In Antioxidants
How do we which foods are high in antioxidants? Fortunately, science has already done the work for us by developing a test known as a ferric reducing/antioxidant power (FRAP) assay that is quick, sensitive and very affordable to perform. This test measures the antioxidant content of foods by how well they neutralize the aforementioned free radicals. This is all you really need to know about this test, but if you want to learn more, just do a quick Google search.
There are many published studies that have used the FRAP assay which has generated a large database of the antioxidant content of various food. Among the foods that are rich in antioxidants by category are:
- Russet Potatoes
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Brazil Nuts
- Dark Chocolate
- Red Wine
- Green Tea
The last category is my favorite of the bunch. 🙂 Believe it or not, dark chocolate is a powerful source of antioxidants and may contain even more of this beneficial nutrient than any fruit or vegetable!
So go ahead and enjoy your dark chocolate and red wine, in moderation of course! If you prefer a non-alcoholic antioxidant, just enjoy a nice cup of green tea.
Eating our antioxidants is always the best way to go, but I know that many of us either don’t have the time to prepare/get nutritious food or we are plain just too lazy to do it. Nonetheless, we still need antioxidants to stave off scary diseases, so of course, there are supplements available that we can use to boost our levels.
According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamins A, C, and E along with the minerals copper, zinc and selenium, are the main antioxidants that help to regulate free radicals and oxidative stress in the body. Many over the counter vitamin supplements are fortified with these nutrients, so just by taking a multi-vitamin, you’re also getting antioxidants.
However, is it really a good idea to take antioxidant supplements? Studies have shown that antioxidant supplements have no beneficial effect and may in fact interfere with the body’s natural processes of ridding itself of free radicals. For this reason alone, I don’t recommend taking any antioxidant supplement with maybe the exception of Vitamin C – especially for smokers who are exposed to more free-radical causing, environmental toxins.
Final Thoughts On Antioxidants
Antioxidants are extremely important for our overall health and thankfully our bodies are very capable of producing them. Given that our bodies need more antioxidants than we can naturally produce it is very important to add them from external sources.
Food, not pills, should always be the primary source of your antioxidants. Try to source fresh, organic fruits like wild blueberries, cranberries and strawberries. Include cruciferous vegetables and nuts. Finally, top it all off with some nice dark chocolate or a glass of wine or a cup of green tea.
Who says being healthy can’t be fun? I really believe that food holds the cure for all that ails us, and when we eat the right foods or follow the right diet for our body types, we really can achieve the holy grail of health and well being.
So, do you get in your daily levels of antioxidants? What are your favorite high-antioxidant foods? Let us know in the comments. Until next time: Happy Eating!