Antioxidants are just that: they fight (anti) oxidation.
The chemical process of oxidation is like rusting metal. A molecule loses electrons and creates the infamous free radicals. Oxidation is also the reason why apples, bananas, and avocados go brown when the skin is broken, and they're exposed to air - they're getting oxidized.
Free radicals in the body cause inflammation and can contribute to diseases like cancers, diabetes, and heart disease (to name a few). So, the antidote to oxidation is the antioxidant. Vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E are examples of antioxidants. So are other compounds in foods like carotenoids and phenols. These compounds sacrifice their electrons to stop the oxidation process; this why squirting some lemon juice on your sliced apples, bananas and avocados slows down the browning process.
But don’t think that all oxidation in the body is bad. It’s not. Your body naturally oxidizes compounds all the time when it’s doing healthy things like metabolizing nutrients or exercising.
As with many things in life and health, the key is maintaining a good balance. In this case, as the balance between oxidation and antioxidation.
We can throw off that balance with exposure to too much alcohol, smoking, or environmental pollutants. Even over-exercising or too much sun exposure can create too much oxidation.
The best sources of antioxidants to combat this effect are nutritious whole foods, like colorful fresh produce, e.g., blueberries, purple cabbage, etc. In fact, the more colorful and darker the plant is, the higher levels of antioxidants it usually has. Chemicals that give the plants their deep colors are often the antioxidants themselves.
Antioxidants in food
Let me list out a bunch of antioxidants and the foods they’re found in:
Vitamin A - Found in liver, dark leafy greens (e.g., kale), orange fruits and veggies (e.g., mangoes, carrots & squashes)
Vitamin C - Found in bell peppers, citrus, berries, and leafy greens
Vitamin E - Found in leafy greens, nuts (e.g., walnuts), and seeds (e.g., sunflowers)
Carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lycopene, etc.) - Found in tomatoes, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and salmon
Phenols - Found in green tea, black tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine, and berries
Blueberries are probably one of the most studied antioxidant foods. They contain a range of phytochemical (i.e., plant chemical) compounds and are very high in anthocyanins (the blue-colored compound).
The antioxidant capacity can be measured in a laboratory; this is called the "oxygen radical absorption capacity," or "ORAC." And blueberries have one of the highest ORAC levels.
FUN FACT: Some studies estimate that the highest source of antioxidants in the average American is not from berries, it's from coffee! Can you imagine how much healthier people can be if they added a few more servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to their days?
Antioxidant Foods vs. Supplements
While antioxidant supplements have been tested, their results haven’t been as good as many hoped. Compared with eating a nutrient-dense antioxidant-rich colorful array of plants, antioxidants supplements have fallen short.
Many studies of antioxidant supplements haven’t shown any benefit against heart disease, cancer, or other diseases. And these are diseases that are known to be reduced in people who eat a lot of foods that are naturally full of antioxidants.
In fact, too much of any individual antioxidant, like when overdoing supplements, can be harmful. Too much vitamin A is linked to increased risk of hip fractures and prostate cancer. Too much beta-carotene increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Too much vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer, lung infections, heart failure, and even death.
One of the reasons why we think that antioxidant foods work oh-so-much better than antioxidant supplements is because of synergy. The concept of synergy means that by taking one component out of healthful food (i.e., the antioxidant), it loses the effect it has when combined with all the other healthy components it came with from nature. This is the difference between eating a whole orange and taking a vitamin C supplement. The orange is going to have more than just vitamin C, and many of those compounds will work together for overall health better than just isolating one and having higher-than-normal doses of it.
There are antioxidant vitamins (A, C & E) and other antioxidants like carotenoids and polyphenols. They're highest in colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some meats, tea, coffee, and cocoa.
You can’t replace a diet full of nutrient-dense antioxidant-rich whole foods with supplements. So stick with the foods.
Which antioxidant-rich foods and drinks are your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.
Recipe (Antioxidant-rich): Blueberry Smoothie
1 handful baby spinach leaves
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or choice of nut/oat milk)
1 dash cinnamon
Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Use any greens you have on hand in place of the spinach, if you wish.
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