Wherever we look these days, we are being told, “eat more antioxidants to live longer, avoid cancer, and stay generally healthier”. The benefits of antioxidants were realized by researchers in the 60’s and 70’s. Since then our understanding of them has continued to expand. Unfortunately most people get their information on antioxidants from the labels on the products they by. This isn’t to say this information is incorrect, just that it’s not the full story.
To start, let’s first take a look at free radicals and oxidization. Think back to high school chemistry for a minute. You probably recall learning about things called protons and electrons. Electrons are negatively charged particles that help make chemical bonds. These chemical bonds are found throughout our body and are the result of electrons in different atoms being shared. Sometimes however, atoms with weak bonds split off and float around our body. These are free radicals.
A free radical will have an unpaired electron in their outer layer. This makes them highly successful at “stealing” an electron from another atom or oxygen molecules in our body. This is called oxidization. Oxidization leads to unstable molecules and the formation of even more free radicals in the body. As you can see, this is a chain reaction that perpetuates.
While free radicals are not always bad, as some help the immune system fight foreign bacteria and viruses, in general, they damage cells and lead to improper cellular function. Consider what happens to an unpeeled banana that has been left out for a while. The outsides begin turning brown the longer it is exposed to air. This is a good comparison to what is happening inside our body when oxidization occurs.
How do we stop this harmful oxidization from occurring? Enter antioxidants. Antioxidants fill the void that the free electron has created. Free radicals donate an electron to the unpaired electron, thus preventing oxidization. The body creates its own supply of antioxidants, but sometimes, this is not enough. When there are consistently more free radicals than antioxidants available to “donate” to them, oxidative stress occurs. Oxidative stress can lead to premature aging, cancer, ALS disease, and a variety of other impairments.
Luckily, ingesting certain foods can boost our antioxidant levels. Lycopene (tomatoes, watermelon), tannins (teas), lutein (dark green veggies), Vitamin C (citrus fruits) are some of the more common antioxidants. As you can imagine, food manufacturer’s are quick to tout the antioxidant benefits of their products. Nutrients such as iron, zinc, and manganese are often referred to as antioxidants, however they unfortunately do not possess antioxidant properties.
Antioxidants are found in a variety of foods. To ingest high levels of antioxidants, aim to eat a diet that’s composed of citrus fruits, berries, nuts, whole grains, seeds, fish, and vegetables of all varieties. A balanced diet is key to keeping free radicals in check.
Some foods that are especially high in antioxidants are:
- Green tea
- Goji berries
- Red kidney beans