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.
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”).
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).
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