Ask Keri: What Are Antioxidants, and How Do They Fit Into My Healthy Lifestyle?
Keri says: Over the past decade, the term “antioxidant” has basically become shorthand for healthy. Ask someone to explain why a superfood is super? Antioxidants. How to reduce inflammation in the body? Antioxidants. How to prevent disease? Antioxidants.
But people often ask me this question: What are antioxidants, really? And are they as important as food manufacturers, nutritionists and scientists make them out to be?
Here are the basic facts on the powerful nutrients, which, yes, you really do want all up in your diet 24-7.
What Are Antioxidants, and What Do They Do?
Many nutrients fall into the category of antioxidants (the “good guys”). These include vitamins A, C and E, and minerals such as selenium, copper and zinc. Most are found in plants—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, herbs and spices—and in foods with healthy fats like nuts, and beverages like tea and coffee.
Put simply, antioxidants are substances that protect your cells from the harmful effects of molecules called free radicals (the “bad guys”).
Free radicals are produced when your body breaks down food. They can also be the result of environmental exposures such as tobacco smoke, the sun, radiation, or chemicals found in food and skin-care products.
Think of a free radical as a pinball careening around inside your body, constantly smashing into other cells, disrupting normal cell functioning. The cells can’t do their jobs properly because these guys keep storming the gates. If the body isn’t able to defend itself and the free-radical production becomes excessive, it leads to damage that contributes to aging (yes, including wrinkles), heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
Antioxidants are the first line of defense to prevent that from happening. I like to think of them as little molecules flying through our bloodstreams wearing capes, like superheroes. When they encounter free radicals, they neutralize them (by using their powers to do things like donate electrons to balance out the unpaired electrons that cause the free radicals to wreak havoc, but that’s getting technical).
How To Include Antioxidants in Your Diet
All of that is to say that these molecules really are pretty incredible, and eating foods that contain them as often as possible is a great idea.
One way to determine a food’s antioxidant power is by checking its ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score. The ORAC scale is a way to determine which foods are richest in antioxidants. It essentially measures how well the components of a food mop up free radicals in the bloodstream. It’s not a perfect scale, but it is a reference point.
Here’s a tip. You’ll find the highest antioxidant values attached to colorful, plant-based foods such as blueberries, kale, cinnamon, turmeric and … dark chocolate! In other words, most antioxidants are found in the healthy foods you should be eating anyway for other important nutrients.
This is why your overall focus should be on maintaining a nutrient-dense diet that’s filled with a variety of fruits, veggies, whole grains and spices. This way, you’ll be taking in a variety of powerful antioxidants naturally, without going overboard at every meal.
(Images: Adam Jaime, Mikey Boyle via Unsplash)