Everyone talks about antioxidants and free radicals, but what are they and how do they really work? Oxidation occurs when oxygen is exposed to cells and causes them to change. A real life example would be when oxygen hits an apple slice and it turns brown. Our bodies typically use oxygen in an efficient way, but sometimes cells get harmed in the process and free radicals are created.
Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that often collide with other cells and cause interference with normal cell functioning. They are considered free because they are missing an important molecule (electron) which sends them on a desperate journey to gain stability with nearby stable molecules. This sometimes causes a chain reaction and can result in the disruption of a living cell and ultimately cause DNA damage. Free radicals are also created from environmental pollution, smoke from cigarettes, radiation and other chemicals. The resulting oxidation is linked to a variety of health problems such as cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration and heart disease.
Antioxidants actually donate their electrons to free radicals, forming a more stable molecule. This process breaks the chain reaction by stopping the electron-stealing effect and ultimately prevents tissue and cell damage. Try it for yourself: dip an apple in orange juice; the apple will remain white. This is because orange juice is rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant.
Where can we find antioxidants?
Food is the best source of antioxidants. Plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts contain complex combinations of antioxidants. Some antioxidants are also found in fish, meat and poultry. Each unique antioxidant works in different parts of cells, so it is best to eat a colorful variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods every day. Eating at least 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables is a good start. Ask a registered dietitian or your physician whether you need a supplement.
Well-known antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium. Phytochemicals are plant compounds that are rich in antioxidants. Some groups of phytochemicals you may have heard of are flavonoids (quercetin and anthocyanin) and carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein).
- Enjoy a glass of hot or iced green tea with lemon or citrus. Adding citrus to green tea may help increase the amount of antioxidants available for the body to absorb.
- Add avocado to your meals. The fat in avocados may help increase the body’s absorption of carotenoids.
- Enjoy 1 ounce of dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids. The higher the cocoa percentage in the chocolate, the more antioxidants are present.
- Add blueberries and cinnamon to your oatmeal. Cinnamon and other spices are high in antioxidants.
- Add fresh herbs like oregano, basil and rosemary to tomato sauce or in recipes to add a boost of antioxidants to your meals.
- Dip sliced apples in antioxidant-rich orange juice, and then top with almond butter and cinnamon.
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