You've probably seen the word "antioxidant" referenced hundreds of times in food and nutrition articles and advertising. A Google search for the term yields a staggering 132 million results. But what exactly are antioxidants, how do they benefit your health and what are the best ways to consume them? Here is a review of what antioxidants are.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that are found in the body and are found in plant-based foods that counteract oxidative stress. In a nutshell, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counteract their harmful effects.
Free radicals are formed as a by-product of normal metabolism and in response to exercise, sun exposure and environmental pollutants such as smoke and cigarette smoke. The oxidative stress triggered by free radicals damages healthy cells and is thought to play a role in a variety of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and heart disease. Oxidative stress also adversely affects aging.
Antioxidants mainly act as bodyguards to protect healthy cells from free radical attacks. By doing so, they help maintain proper physiological function and protect your health.
Top sources of antioxidants
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of substances that act as antioxidants, from vitamin C to flavonoids and polyphenols. A wide range of herbal foods provide antioxidants, so they are easy to obtain. Some of the best sources include berries, cocoa, herbs and spices, beans, artichokes, apples, nuts and seeds, cherries, dark leafy vegetables, coffee and tea, whole grains, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, avocados and pomegranates.
How to increase your antioxidant intake
To take in a wider range of antioxidants, as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber, aim for a variety of herbal food groups in different colors. A good piece of advice is to eat five cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit in each day's meals. For example, include one cup of vegetables for breakfast, two for lunch and two for dinner, in addition to one cup of fruit for breakfast, and another as part of a daily snack.
Another way to increase your antioxidant intake is to replace processed foods with whole, plant-based foods. Replace a breakfast pastry with a bowl of “zoats” (zucchini oatmeal) topped with fruit and nuts. Instead of a sandwich or wrap, go for a bowl made with a generous base of greens topped with beans, brown rice and spiced guacamole. Snack on fruits with nuts or seeds, or vegetables with hummus. Satisfy your sweet tooth with dark chocolate. Sprinkle cinnamon in your morning coffee and top up with water or tea with antioxidant-rich herbs and fruit pieces. It is impossible to take in too many antioxidants from whole foods. Plus choosing antioxidant-rich foods can increase the overall nutritional quality of your diet.
Too many antioxidants via supplements can be harmful
However, the goal is not to charge as many antioxidants as possible. There are high doses of antioxidant supplements out there, but they are not the best way to protect your body. In fact, some research has linked the use of high-dose beta-carotene supplements to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Taking high-dose supplements of antioxidant vitamin E has been associated with an increased risk of both hemorrhagic stroke (a type of stroke caused by bleeding in the brain) and prostate cancer.
The best way to consume antioxidants is in whole, herbal foods. This is partly because antioxidants work in synergy with each other and with other bioactive compounds. In other words, they are an ingredient in a complex recipe for health protection.
Conclusion on antioxidants
Antioxidants are an important aspect of proactive nutrition and can help stave off aging and chronic disease. For these reasons, they can help you look and feel better. But antioxidants are not a cure. They should not be used in supplemental form to treat a medical condition without the supervision of your doctor. To get the most out of your antioxidants, buy them from whole foods or products made from whole food ingredients. It is also the most delicious and satisfying way to get your daily dose.