You’ve probably heard of antioxidants. You probably know they’re good for you. You might even realize that they can be found in especially high amounts in fruits and vegetables. But what exactly are antioxidants and why do we need them?
Oxidative Stress + Antioxidants
In order to fully explain what antioxidants are, I’m going to have to get a little science-nerdy…but I promise to keep it simple.
Chemical reactions, including oxidation, are constantly occurring within our cells. During oxidation reactions, molecules lose electrons, which can lead to the creation of free radicals. Free radicals are lonely electrons that tend to scavenge electrons from other molecules. This electron scavenging leads to a chain reaction of oxidation reactions and free radical creation.
Oxidation reactions are normal processes that are crucial for life (they’re necessary to carry out the process of turning food into energy) but excessive oxidation reactions (and/or a lack of antioxidants in the body) can lead to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can damage and even kill our cells and has been linked with a number of chronic diseases, including cancer and diabetes. Its also involved with speeding up the aging process and is linked with numerous age-related diseases.
Antioxidants are molecules present in plants and animals that prevent excessive oxidative stress. These compounds prevent oxidation by sharing extra electrons or breaking down free radicals to render them harmless. In this way, antioxidants are thought to play a key role in preventing cellular damage, decreasing risk for chronic disease, and delaying the aging process.
Many micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals that we need in very small amounts) act as antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene (vitamin A), and selenium. Phytonutrients, such as catechins in green tea and resveratrol in red wine, also have antioxidant properties.
Food Sources of Antioxidants
Research shows that plant-based foods provide significantly more dietary antioxidants than animal-based foods and its widely accepted that a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help reduce risk for oxidative stress-related diseases.
To maximize your intake of antioxidants from food, choose plenty of fruits (berries, pomegranate), vegetables (dark leafy greens, broccoli), nuts (walnuts, pecans), beans, green tea, coffee, and herbs and spices (cloves, cinnamon, thyme, mint).
What About Antioxidant Supplements?
People often ask me if they can pop a supplement and forget about eating their fruits and vegetables. Sorry, but you can’t get the same benefits from supplements as you can from real food. Numerous studies show that there are benefits to consuming antioxidant-rich plant foods, but we aren’t necessarily sure if this is due to one specific antioxidant (as would be found in a supplement) or something else in our food.
We should also be very careful when taking high doses of micronutrient supplements (like Vitamin E and Selenium). Taking more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) can have some negative effects and could even promote oxidation.
That being said, I often recommend antioxidant supplements like multivitamins, resveratrol, CoQ10, and green tea extract and have seen great results with them. Check with a registered dietitian or physician if you think antioxidant supplements could be right for you.
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