What Are Antioxidants and Are They Really That Important?

Q: What Are Antioxidants, and How Do They Fit Into My Healthy Lifestyle?

A: Over the past decade, the term “antioxidants” 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 they, 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 you know about fall into the category of antioxidants (the “good guys), like vitamins A, C and E, minerals like selenium, and  Most are found in plants—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and herbs and spices—and in healthy fats like nuts and beverages like tea and coffee.

Put simply, all of them are substances in the body 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 or as a result of environmental exposures like tobacco smoke, the sun, radiation, or chemicals found in food and skin-care products.

antioxidants

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 can lead 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 was developed as a way to determine which foods were richest in antioxidants, and 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.

But there’s a lucky secret: you’ll find the highest antioxidant values attached to colorful, plant-based foods like blueberries, kale, cinnamon and turmeric, and…wait for it…dark chocolate! In other words, most antioxidants are found in the healthy foods you should be eating anyway for other important nutrients like fiber.

So, 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.

Photos: Adam Jaime, Mikey Boyle via Unsplash

4 Ways to Fight Winter Skin With Food

Winter skin is upon us, and I just heard a collective sigh.

Cozy sweaters, colorful scarves, fuzzy earmuffs—all things we love when the temperature drops outside. But flaky skin, scaly patches, and itchy itches are the things nobody loves that come with the territory.

Rather than succumbing to winter’s wrath, I want you to combat winter skin from the inside out. Eating certain healthy  foods and applying others topically can give your skin a smooth, rosy glow now matter how cold it gets.

4 Ways to Fight Winter Skin With Food

tea

1. Take a tea break. Baby its cold outside—why not curl up with a warm cup of tea? While you might not be as thirsty in the winter as you were during the summer heat, staying hydrated in the winter is equally essential.

Drinking 8-10 glasses of water and tea per day can help flush out toxins, prevent the skin from drying, increase cell turnover and keep your skin young and fresh.

Herbal teas are a great way to stay hydrated or you can choose a green tea variety to help reduce inflammation for extra beautification.

Just be sure to combine drinking plenty of water and/or tea with applying plenty of topical moisturizer—moisturizers help hold water in the skin’s top layer, so it works hand in hand with water. This translates into great glowing skin despite the harsh winter weather!

orange and green food

2. Eat one orange food and one green food (and no we don’t mean M&Ms!). Halloween is over, but that doesn’t mean orange is out just yet—orange veggies, such as carrots, squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes are full of carotenoids.

Carotenoids increase our defense against the sun and damage from UV rays (remember it is important to always use sunscreen for protection, even in the winter!).

They also help prevent acne breakouts and flare-ups that can make your skin blemished and blotchy. Try a pumpkin yogurt mask for a little winter skin pampering.

Green foods, such as kale and spinach, are full of vitamin C, which can act as your food equivalent of the fountain of youth—vitamin C helps to repair skin by building collagen and helping to ward off those pesky wrinkles. Eat at least one orange and one green food every day and your skin will thank you!

salmon avocado

3. Snack on (healthy) fat. We love fat. We aren’t talking about the kind you find in pie and french fries, but rather the healthy fats found in salmon, avocados and chia seeds.

These foods contain omega 3 fatty acids, which aid in heart health and weight loss…but did you know they can also give you healthy skin? They help reduce inflammation and prevent collagen breakdown (translation: less wrinkles).

Looking for some healthy snacks? Simply mix 2 tablespoons chia into your yogurt for an added 5 grams of omega 3s, or sprinkle some flax into a mid-day cuppa oatmeal.

One food that is as good in your belly as it is on your face is an avocado. Avocados contain monounsaturated fat and is rich in vitamins A and E.

Vitamin E enhances your skin’s collagen production (translation: smoother skin) while sealing in vital moisture. Try this avocado face mask and let this double-duty powerhouse work its magic on your dry, winter skin!

blueberries

4. Eat at least one colorful fruit every day. Fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants not only fight damaging free radicals in your body, they also can fight those winter skin blues too! Antioxidants help protect your skin against damage caused by the sun and harsh weather conditions in the winter.

Blueberries have the added benefit of containing compounds that slow wrinkles and the effects of aging. Think of antioxidants as your youth elixir, keeping you beautiful, ageless and energized no matter what the weather has in store. An apple a day could keep those wrinkles at bay. Healthy eating, healthy skin, healthy you!