What are antioxidants and what do they really do?

Do we really need antioxidants? What do they really do? How should we get antioxidants into our daily diets?

Most of us kind of know that we should get more antioxidants into our diets. But who knows why, exactly? Something about free radicals, right? Anti oxidants are good. Free radical damage is bad. If that's as far as your anti oxidant knowledge goes, stick with us as we bring you a simple breakdown of what you need to know. Here's the low-down on antioxidants.

Antioxidants refer to chemicals occurring in nature (commonly found in plants, vegetables, sea vegetables and some seafood, fruits and berries) and man-made (antioxidant supplements). The anti oxidants you've most likely heard of are vitamins A, C, and E, lycopene, selenium and beta-carotene. It's actually more correct to call the behaviour of these compounds antioxidant (you could think in terms of an antioxidant effect), but most people talk about the chemical compounds themselves as antioxidants, so let's go with that.

Antioxidants, or antioxidant effects, create electrons which minimise the damage caused by free radicals. Here's what happens during free radical action: oxidation (exposure to oxygen) damages atoms on a structural level (oxidative stress), leaving unpaired electrons on the loose, looking for other electrons to fix to. This happens naturally, as part of ageing. Even positive actions like exercising and being outside in sunlight cause oxidative damage. These loose free radicals are dangerous, because they can hook themselves onto cells and create more free radical action as they go along. Cell structure loses its integrity, which can lead to all sorts of damage including disease (even cancer).

So, antioxidants help us defend against this free radical action, by providing those initial uncoupled free radicals with an electrons to latch on to. And then those same antioxidants can start repairing any cell damage which might have already occurred.

Most vegetables and fruits contain useful amounts of antioxidants. In general, the more colourful (and darkly-coloured) the veggie or fruit, the higher the antioxidant content. Here are 10 great foods to eat more of if you want to boost your natural antioxidant intake:

 

  • Dark left greens (spinach, kale, chard, collard greens)
  • Kidney beans and pinto beans
  • Berries and cherries (frozen or fresh)
  • Citrus fruit
  • Organic apples (particularly Red Delicious and Granny Smith, according to the USDA)
  • Green tea, or green tea supplement in capsule form
  • Pecan nuts
  • Prunes
  • Artichoke (cooked)
  • Russet potato

 

Whilst antioxidants are definitely good news, they're not the be all and end all of disease prevention and good health. Studies (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/) remain inconclusive about exactly how far antioxidants go in the fight against disease. It's a good idea to get more of them in our diets, but they can't be relied upon to prevent, repair or offset degeneration, disease and illness.

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