What are antioxidants and why do we need them?
You’ve probably heard the term “antioxidants” being tossed around here and there when it comes to diet. But what exactly are antioxidants, how do they work in the body, why do we need them and how do we get them?
Before understanding antioxidants, you need to know what free radicals are and what effects they have on the body.
The body gets older, collapses and becomes more and more vulnerable to environmental changes and toxins. Let’s call it the cycle of life.
One of these changes is often due to free radicals. You probably don’t remember this from high school chemistry, but free radicals are essentially unstable molecular ions.
In the body, oxygen molecules often break down and become unstable free radicals, allowing them to interact with other molecules in the body. This, in turn, can expose the body to oxidative stress and over time the cells break down.
Not all free radicals are bad. The body naturally produces them in response to exercise or inflammation, and they help maintain balance.
Unfortunately, many people are exposed to excess free radicals from environmental toxins such as pollution, pesticides, household chemicals, radiation, cigarette smoke, and alcohol.
While cell degeneration is a normal part of aging, free radicals can damage cells even more. Scientists have linked free radicals to diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s, autoimmune diseases, and more.
What about antioxidants?
While there is no “cure” for free radicals because they are a natural part of aging. There are ways to negate or slow down the effects on the body.
This is where antioxidants come in!
Antioxidants are exactly what they sound like. They slow down the effects of free radicals and the aging process by preventing molecules from oxidizing. Antioxidants generously donate electrons to free radicals, which helps stabilize these free radicals. However, this does not make the antioxidants unstable.
They essentially help reverse the effects of free radicals while repairing DNA and maintaining cell health.
Of course, like many things in the scientific world, the effectiveness of antioxidants has not been fully substantiated by data. While some studies show its effectiveness, others remain inadequate.
Even so, it helps to avoid obvious causes of free radicals whenever possible. You can do this by opting for organic or minimally processed foods, avoiding chemicals in your detergents, and choosing chemical-free products for a sustainable period like a menstrual cup.
While the jury still doesn’t know exactly how and if antioxidants are effective, it doesn’t hurt to include them in your diet. Antioxidants largely come from nutrient-rich, healthy foods that are important to an overall healthy lifestyle.
Antioxidants come from other nutrients you know, like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, as well as minerals like manganese and selenium. Many foods are likely to be high in antioxidants as they function similarly to those in the human body – to prevent oxidation and protect against environmental toxins.
One cool thing that has been developed is the FRAP test, or Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma. This essentially measures a particular food’s antioxidant power and how well they help neutralize certain free radicals.
This FRAP test has helped scientists and health professionals make dietary recommendations to help their clients fight the effects of free radicals.
Which foods are high in antioxidants?
A lot of science has been thrown at you in this article. So let’s get to the basics.
How Do You Eat More Antioxidants? Here are some delicious foods you can reach for:
- Blueberries: They’re also high in vitamin C, potassium, and other plant nutrients or phytoflavinoids.
- Beets: You can juice them, you can fry them, you can put them raw on a salad. These beautiful root vegetables are high in iron, folic acid, and fiber. They get their beautiful color from a group of antioxidants called betalains.
- Spinach: Spinach is low in calories but high in minerals like iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. It is of course also rich in antioxidants. Other dark leafy vegetables are also great sources of antioxidants.
- Raspberries: In addition to the antioxidants, these delicious, small-sized berries are filled with vitamins K, C, and E, as well as a variety of minerals like phosphorus and copper.
- Kidney beans: Do you see a pattern of colorful foods? Like most legumes, these beans are high in protein and antioxidants.
- Pecans: It doesn’t stop with antioxidants, pecans are also full of heart-healthy fats, balancing minerals, and low in carbohydrates.
Regardless of whether antioxidants work as people suspect, there is no harm in adding more of these healthy foods to your daily diet! Try to use a variety of antioxidant-rich foods as these act differently depending on the other nutrients in those foods.
So grab those blueberries and eat them up. Yum!