A: You’ve probably seen the word “antioxidants” in a wide variety of places, from food and supplement packaging to skin creams and cosmetics. Antioxidants often make the news because of their link to preventing diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and macular degeneration. In order to really understand what antioxidants are, we need take a step back and look at free radicals. There is a constant battle waging in your body, and the two dueling sides are free radicals and healthy cells. Each cell in your body is made up of molecules, and each of those molecules is happiest when it has an even number of electrons surrounding it. Free radicals are unstable molecules with uneven numbers of electrons that roam around the body stealing electrons from healthy cells so they can feel “whole” again. Unfortunately this turns healthy cells into damaged (and damaging) free radicals, and the unhealthy cycle continues. This cycle is called oxidation.
Here’s where antioxidants save the day. Antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals so they don’t need to practice their thievery on innocent healthy cells. Antioxidants also prevent free radicals from ever forming in the body in the first place by preventing oxidation (this is how “anti” oxidants got their name!)
What are some causes of free radical formation in the body? Pollution, stress, natural aging and body processes, an unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol intake, exposure to pesticides, smoking, and too much sun. Some antioxidants are generated in the body as protection, however with all of the environmental assaults present today, it’s important to get as many as possible from your diet. Antioxidants can be found in any plant-based foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and beans. Our best advice for ensuring you’re getting enough free radicals? Aim for at least two different colors of plant-based foods at every meal. Colors correlate with different types of antioxidants.
In addition to eating foods rich in antioxidants, do what you can to reduce your exposure to free radicals. Limit sun exposure; keep your stress level in check; eat a healthful, balanced diet; buy organic produce when possible; don’t overdue alcohol; and, if you’re a smoker, quit smoking. Limiting the things that cause free radicals, while maximizing your intake of antioxidant rich foods, means double the protection against free radicals.
Check out our latest salad tips for some antioxidant-packed meal ideas.
Have you seen antioxidants touted on labels or in the news? Where?