You have probably heard of these powerful chemicals–they’re frequently praised in the media as anti-cancer and anti-aging miracles. So what’s all the hype about?
Here’s the low-down on antioxidants:
Antioxidants are free radical scavengers. A free radical is a chemistry term for a molecule that has an unpaired electron—thus making it highly reactive. Think of them as wild, unpredictable chemicals. They can act as “oxidants” by accepting an electron from another molecule to complete its pair. Therefore compounds that combat free radicals are called “antioxidants”. Antioxidants donate an electron to free radicals and are strong enough to wrangle them in and cancel out their damaging effects.
Free radicals are produced naturally in the body as byproducts of metabolic reactions and they can also be acquired from external sources like cigarettes, UV radiation from the sun, radiation from medical procedures, pesticides and air pollution. While a free radical isn’t always a bad thing, the accumulation of free radicals can lead to oxidative stress, which in turn can induce a bevy of chronic diseases and health conditions as well as accelerating the aging process.
Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. In other words, the free radicals are winning. Oxidative stress can put the body in an inflammatory state and lead to many rampant diseases such as arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
As far as aging goes, consuming antioxidants from a rainbow of fruits and vegetables can help prevent the DNA damage associated with accelerated aging as well as many of the chronic diseases associated with oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants. Many vitamins and phytochemicals found in plants function as powerful antioxidants. These include beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, selenium, a whole host of flavonoids, and even certain types of fat. One of the reasons it’s important to eat a rainbow of produce daily is because each color is associated with a phytonutrient, many of them antioxidants.
Antioxidants are available in supplement form; however, there is no solid evidence to suggest that antioxidant supplements are beneficial for health, and some may even be harmful. As with other nutrients, it is best to obtain antioxidants from whole foods rather than supplements. There are countless synergistic effects of nutrients, as well as compounds we likely haven’t discovered yet, present in whole foods that cannot be replicated in pill form.
Be sure to eat a rainbow of plant foods every day to consume a variety of protective antioxidants:
Red Bell Peppers
Orange Bell Peppers
Yellow Bell Peppers
Green Bell Peppers
For more information on the role of antioxidants in health, check out these resources:
Free Radicals, Antioxidants and Functional Foods: Impact on Human Health
Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention
Antioxidants in Fruits and Vegetables Can Prevent Several Leading Causes of Death
Can Antioxidants in Fruits and Vegetables Protect You and Your Help?