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Understanding Antioxidants

Jul 19 2021
6 min read
Overhead view of hands reaching over a cutting board with an avocado on it, into bowl of spinach on a table with a bowl of blueberries, apples, and bananas.

There’s no debate when it comes to the importance of dietary antioxidants (and why foods like berries may be regular entries on your grocery list).

There remains much confusion, however, about how antioxidants work in the body, and the best sources for them. One important and often misunderstood point? Antioxidants are best obtained from foods rather than supplements.

In a nutshell, “antioxidant” is a catchall term for different types of compounds found in foods, and produced by our bodies, that protect our cells from damage. This damage is caused by molecules called free radicals, which can be harmful when in excess.

Our bodies produce free radicals every second of every day as a result of turning food into a useable form of energy, known as ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. When your body burns food for fuel, it’s a bit like burning gas in a car’s cylinder. Instead of sparks flying off the fire of a car’s cylinder, our body creates what experts call free radicals, which can be dangerous: They have an odd number of electrons, and when they bounce around your cells, they rob electrons from healthy cells, to neutralize their own charge. Experts say this harmful cascade, known as oxidative stress, causes damage on the cellular level — triggering health issues such as inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis), heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and even certain cancers. Oxidative stress is also involved in the process of aging.

The good news? Our bodies know how dangerous these free radicals are and produces natural antioxidants to combat them. Of course, we can consume more antioxidants, such a berries and kale, to assist our body in neutralizing the damage from free radicals — boosting our health and longevity.

Why Food is Best

While you might be tempted to buy supplements to boost your antioxidant intake, it’s wise to be cautious. There’s not enough evidence proving antioxidant supplements work to prevent disease, and some studies show that synthetic antioxidants (particularly when consumed in high doses) may actually cause the oxidative stress you’re trying to avoid; once an antioxidant does its job, it actually becomes an oxidant, albeit a bit weaker one.

Instead, experts recommend turning to whole foods to get the dietary antioxidants your body needs. Furthermore, fruits, vegetables, and other good-for-you selections are packed with several nutrients, which is the key to their power: When consumed through a healthy, varied diet, antioxidants work in concert with one another — something not possible when just taking, say, one beta carotene supplement.

As you choose what to fill your plate with:

Make Your Calories Count

Because burning calories produces free radicals, you might assume
that eating less is a good strategy. Of course there’s a limit to that strategy, since we can’t eat so little that we become malnourished.

A better route? Reach your daily calorie goals through a nutrient-rich diet. When it comes to foods with a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio (NCR), think fiber- and water-rich vegetables and fruits, lean meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. Nuts and seeds are medium NCR foods, which makes them good choices in moderation. In addition to helping keep your free radical count low, these foods will also fill you up and help you maintain a healthy weight. Low NCR foods to avoid include refined grains, high processed or fried foods, and sugary snacks and drinks.

Eat the Rainbow

There’s a surprisingly simple way to figure out how antioxidant-rich your diet is: The more colorful your plate, the better off you are. It’s the pigments in food that actually have the antioxidant properties, and the colors work together. So, for example, carotene works with lutein, which works with xanthine, etc. Experts liken the way colorful fruits and vegetables neutralize harmful free radicals to a game of hot potato. Each antioxidant grabs a free radical, cools it off, and hands it off to another antioxidant. Each hand off makes the free radical ‘cooler’ and less dangerous, until it can ultimately be excreted by the body. Colorful foods almost always have a high NCR, so actually produce fewer free radicals than more calorie-dense foods when you eat them. High NCR foods are also likely to contain vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, and the mineral selenium, which are also antioxidants. Our article, Eating a Colorful Diet for Cancer Prevention, offers more benefits and advice.

Remember to Keep Moving

Exercise actually generates more free radicals in the body, since you turn food into ATP in order to get the energy to move. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active — quite the opposite. The free radicals created during exercise may actually improve your fitness, muscle tone, and conditioning. And as you work out, your body makes antioxidants to counter the production of these harmful substances. In fact, because exercise creates such an onslaught of free radicals — even more than when we digest food — exercising actually tricks the body into making extra antioxidants. It’s important to make your exercise regular, since it takes time for the body to adapt to physical activity with extra antioxidant production.