What are antioxidants?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen the words “rich in antioxidants” on a bag of food at your local health food store, you’ve grabbed it off the shelf, and thought to yourself, “yeah, those are really good for you! I have all the antioxidants. I’m super healthy.”

But what even are antioxidants!?

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I had no idea. So as usual, I decided to research and write a blog post. Here are my findings.

What are they?

Essentially, every living organism utilizes oxygen to metabolize and use dietary nutrients to produce energy for survival. Oxygen is what metabolizes fats, protein, and carbohydrates to produce energy in our bodies.

When oxygen gains or loses an electron, it can become a highly reactive atom, known as a free radical.

Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals that are capable of attacking healthy cells in the body. This can lead to damage, disease, and severe disorders. Free radicals have been implicated in the pathogenesis of at least 50 diseases.

Due to the instability of the free radical, it’s common for a chain reaction to begin and for thousands of free radical reactions to occur within seconds (because a free radical is looking for another electron to stabilize itself, it steals one, and the next one looks for an electron, and so on).

This process can be a good thing for your body to neutralize viruses and pathogenic bacteria. It also is what allows us to age. However, high levels of free radicals can become a problem. This is when they perform damage on our healthy cells.

Thus, our body naturally produces….. antioxidants!

There are naturally occurring antioxidants in our bodies (called endogenous antioxidants). These little guys give that extra electron to the free radical without turning into free radicals themselves.

Then, there are antioxidants in supplement form and in our food!

Antioxidants prevent and slow the oxidation of other molecules, which prevents free radicals from continuing destructive behavior.

Pretty cool, huh?

What does this mean for me?

Antioxidants gained popularity in the 1990s because scientists found that free radical damage was involved in the early stages of artery-clogging atherosclerosis, possibly contributing to cancer, vision loss, and other chronic conditions.

People with lower intakes of antioxidants were at a greater risk for developing chronic illnesses than those that had an antioxidant-rich diet.

However, many of the trials show mixed results.

Animal studies have shown some evidence to show that antioxidants prevent chronic conditions. While there have been no human clinical studies that have shown any such evidence. There is still much research to be done.

However, many (but not all) of the clinical studies done have used an antioxidant supplement, rather than a diet rich in antioxidant-nutrient foods. This may have different results entirely. The FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements like they do for pharmaceutical drugs. A dietary supplement can be sold with little to no research on how well it works, side effects, and possible long term effects.

I’d be interested to see more studies shown that purely base their research off an antioxidant-rich diet.

The conclusion: “The implication of oxidative stress in the etiology of several chronic and degenerative diseases suggests that antioxidant therapy represents a promising avenue for treatment.”

The study goes on to say…

Further research is needed before this supplementation could be officially recommended as an adjuvant therapy. In the meantime, it is reminded that avoiding oxidant sources (cigarette, alcohol, bad food, stress, etc) must be considered as important as taking diet rich in antioxidants. Indeed, our health also depends on our lifestyle choice.

Antioxidants have been shown as promising, but not a definitive prevention method, for preventing chronic diseases. Free radicals still have their places in our aging process, as well as defending our body from viruses. We don’t want to get rid of them entirely.

However, we see here that while antioxidant-rich diets are beneficial to the preventions of some of these degenerative diseases, they must be accompanied with a healthy lifestyle.

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They’re not a cure-all. But definitely helpful in our quest to good health.

Many antioxidant rich foods are loaded with all kinds of other beneficial nutrients, so we should try to be eating these foods anyway.

Based off the research and case studies, I believe a diet rich in antioxidants is beneficial to our health + nutrition. But you shouldn’t only eat antioxidant rich foods. The goal isn’t to get rid of all our free radicals (I’m not even sure you could if you tried). Everything in moderation 🙂

Antioxidant Rich Foods

Some antioxidants you may have heard of before are:

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc
  • Beta Carotene
  • Flavonoids
  • Lutein
  • Selenium
  • Copper
  • Polyphenols
  • Manganese

Just to name a few. These have additional benefits as well, such as reducing inflammation. So you’ll definitely want to get some of these in your diet. Foods that have been found to be rich in antioxidants are:

  • Spices + Herbs: clove, cilantro, turmeric, cinnamon, oregano, parsley
  • Tea: matcha, green, black, oolong
  • Berries: goji, wild blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, elderberries
  • Cacao (powder or nibs)
  • Veggies: artichoke, kale, spinach, sprouts, broccoli, beets, red bell peppers, egg plant, red cabbage
  • Nuts: pecans, flaxseed, almonds, walnuts, cashews
  • Beans: kidney

Note: dried herbs + fruits increase the ORAC value of the food (there are more antioxidants).

What do y’all think? Are antioxidants a part of your diet intentionally? Would you take supplements or stick to a nutrient-rich diet? Comment below so I can hear your thoughts!

 

 

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