There’s no doubt that you’ve heard the hype about antioxidants in recent years. But, what exactly are they?
Well, antioxidants are molecules that prevent the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a process that occurs in our body all the time, but it produces free radicals which can play a role in damaging cells. These free radicals have come to be thought of as the villain of our bodies. They have been implicated in dozens of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis and more.
So, antioxidants are like the hero of the body that can help to prevent these illnesses. Thankfully, they’re found in the foods we consume.
But, it’s not that simple. The body is very complex and there’s so much more to antioxidants and free radicals than you might think. Here are 15 things you didn’t know about antioxidants.
1. Free radicals are not all that bad
Despite the fact that antioxidants fight them, free radicals (also known as oxidants) are not as bad as they’re made out to be. Sure, they’ve been linked to cell damage and adverse DNA mutations, but free radicals are a natural part of our body’s processes. Respiration itself generates free radicals, so there’s no way to prevent them from forming in our bodies.
Additionally, they can be beneficial. For example, when you contract a bacterial infection, your immune cells fire free radicals onto the invading bacteria in order to kill them.
So, our bodies actually need free radicals. It’s only when there’s a free radical overload that it can lead to disease.
2. How exactly antioxidants neutralize free radicals
So, how exactly do antioxidants work?
Well, they neutralize free radicals either by providing an extra electron (since free radicals only contain one electron, this renders them unstable), or by breaking down the free radical molecule to render it harmless.
3. Antioxidants aren’t only found in fruits and vegetables
We’re constantly bombarded by messages that we need to eat blueberries, pomegranate, kale and other fruits or vegetables to get antioxidants. Of course, fruits and vegetables do contain a variety of antioxidants, but they’re not the only food items that do.
The entire plant kingdom (including beans, nuts and seeds) contain antioxidants. This is because plants need to produce antioxidants to fight against the free radicals produced by UV rays.
Grains also contain antioxidants, but you probably won’t reap the benefits from that bread in your kitchen because it’s been refined to the point that it loses its benefits. Even meat, dairy products and eggs contain antioxidants (when they come from grass-fed animals).
4. Exercise and antioxidants
Here’s where things might get confusing: exercise (which is, of course, beneficial) produces free radicals (which, in excess, can damage cells) but taking antioxidants to fight off these free radicals right after exercising isn’t beneficial. Sounds a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
The reason for this is that the free radicals produced from exercising promote insulin sensitivity and healthy weight loss (which are both good things). So, taking antioxidant supplements after exercising will erase most of the benefits of exercise.
Furthermore, research has found that the recovery process from exercise actually increases antioxidants! This is another example of how things are more complex than we might think.
5. One type of antioxidant isn’t enough
You might think that if you eat a few handfuls of blueberries every day (but no other fruits or veggies) that you’re safe and getting all the antioxidants you need. But, you’d be wrong.
There are so many different types of antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids etc.) and not all of them are found in any one food. One type of antioxidant can’t always substitute for another. Some are good at fighting only certain free radicals. This is why it’s important to eat a variety of healthy foods.
6. Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants for Americans
Want another reason to grab a cup of coffee? Here’s one: coffee is the number one source of antioxidants for Americans.
Does this mean that drinking coffee is better than eating fruits and veggies? Not necessarily; it simply means that this is how most Americans get most of their antioxidants from their diet. Coffee contains antioxidants called flavonoids (thanks to those cocoa beans) that may offer some cardiovascular protection, and may prevent diabetes.
7. There have been studies which found potential hazards of antioxidants
You may think that you can just consume all the antioxidant-filled foods and supplements you can, good health will be guaranteed. But, this isn’t the case.
A few studies have actually found that taking antioxidant supplements can be potentially harmful, if combined with other lifestyle habits such as smoking. One study found that men who consumed beta-carotene were at a higher risk for lung cancer if they were heavy smokers. Not all studies of beta-carotene have found this result, though.
8. The cognitive benefits of antioxidants
Free radicals seem to be one of the causes of protein clumps (amyloids) in the brain. These amyloids are a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
Research has shown that the antioxidants, vitamin C and E, may reduce the risk of the cognitive disease. Perhaps it’s time to start eating more oranges and leafy greens.
9. Findings regarding their benefits in preventing cancer
Though some studies have found that antioxidants can increase risk of cancer when combined with certain lifestyle habits, the findings are not all negative (otherwise, you wouldn’t have been hearing that you should eat more antioxidants).
Many studies have found a positive effect of antioxidants when it comes to DNA damage (which is caused, in large part, by free radicals). These studies find that people who consume more antioxidants or antioxidant-containing foods had lower rates of cancer than those who consumed less.
10. Most people don’t get enough antioxidants from natural sources
Do you get enough vitamins every day? The recommended daily dosage of vitamin E is 15 milligrams, yet more than 90% of people in America fail to consume that amount.
Think about it—many people are constantly busy and eat fast food or rely on supplements or vitamin tablets. However, eating whole foods is so much healthier, as there are synergistic effects of natural food and overdosing on vitamins (by taking too many supplements) is harmful.
11. The top antioxidant-rich foods
Surely, you’ve heard of pomegranate and blueberries being high in antioxidants. But, these aren’t the most antioxidant-rich foods out there.
As previously mentioned, it’s not just fruits and veggies that contain antioxidants, either. So what are some of the top antioxidant-rich foods? Goji berries, dark chocolate and pecans all contain a high amount of the radical-fighting molecules.
12. Findings regarding their benefits for vision
You definitely know that carrots are good for your eyes. But, why exactly is that the case?
Well, they contain beta-carotene (an antioxidant), which converts to vitamin A in your body. And vitamin A is good for your eye health.
But, there are also other molecules in carrots that help to preserve vision. Lutein, for example, is an antioxidant which reduces the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
13. Omega-3 fatty acids are an antioxidant
It may surprise you that omega-3 fatty acids are antioxidants, but it’s true! A study found that omega-3 fatty acids lower free radical levels and they increase the activity of antioxidant enzymes.
Omega-3 fatty acids include DHA, EPA and ALA. They can be found in oily fish and some plant foods. They have many benefits, including slowing plaque build-up, reducing inflammation (which is a common symptom of many chronic diseases).
14. Antioxidants can be positively or negatively impacted by cooking, depending on the food
The common belief is that cooking foods causes them to lose their nutrients (and antioxidants). While certain foods (for example, bell peppers) do lose their antioxidants when cooked, others actually have an increase in antioxidant properties when cooked.
So which foods should you cook more often than eat raw, if you’d like the antioxidant benefits? Carrots and celery would be a good start.
15. The history of the free radical theory of aging
The free radical theory of aging was formulated in 1956 by Denham Harman. Harman’s theory was that “aging and the degenerative diseases associated with it are attributed basically to the deleterious side attacks of free radicals on cell constituents and on the connected tissues.”
That’s right—we’ve known about free radicals for a long time, but it’s only within the last three decades that we’ve started to really understand it. Even so, many studies on antioxidants and free radicals have been inconclusive and there is still so much more to discover.