• Clarissa

All you need to know about antioxidants

‘Antioxidant’ is a word that gets thrown around about why certain foods are good for us. Blueberries have loads of antioxidants! Red wine is totally good for me! But what does this word actually mean and why are they good for us? Do the antioxidants in red wine really make up for any negative effects? Where do I really get them and how much is enough? What different types are there?

First, what are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are molecules that help protect our cells against damage from free radicals – destructive little dudes that can wreak havoc inside the body if left unchecked. Free radicals are reactive molecules that are produced constantly, both inside the body as natural byproducts of normal processes, and in response to harmful substances like cigarette smoke, toxic chemicals like pesticides, pollution and cleaning products, or radiation.

Because free radicals are so reactive, they bounce around reacting with everything – proteins, cell membranes, DNA, anything they meet. Usually, when a free radical reacts with something it creates another free radical and so it leaves a huge chain of destruction in its wake. An antioxidant is anything that has the power to neutralise free radicals – they allow themselves to react with the free radical but they don’t become one themselves. They stop the chain from progressing. They swallow the fire.

Free radicals do actually have some useful roles in the body but they shouldn’t be left unchecked for long. When there are too many free radicals relative to antioxidants, there aren’t enough good guys to quench the flames so more cells get damaged. This is called “oxidative stress”. It means we age faster, are more susceptible to chronic disease and have reduced immunity. In fact, free radical damage is thought to be the primary cause of aging – both of our organs and of our visible appearance. Diseases linked to oxidative stress include dementia and other neurological and degenerative conditions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions and even cancer.

So, on the whole, the more antioxidants you have in your diet in relation to free radicals, the healthier you’ll be. This means two things: reducing your exposure to things that produce free radicals, and eating a wide variety of antioxidant foods.

Where do antioxidants come from?

Antioxidants are often plant-based. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants on top of their other functions in the body. “Phytonutrients”, which basically means “plant nutrient”, are molecules in plants that the plant itself produces to protect itself, often in the form of colourful pigment. They act as antioxidants in our own bodies, which is one of the reasons why eating a varied and colourful diet is so good for you. Examples of these antioxidants are resveratrol in grape skins, catechins in green tea, or carotenoids in peppers, tomatoes or pomegranate. There are countless different types.

Antioxidant phytonutrients are molecules that plants produce to protect themselves against their environments – e.g. against UV damage or invading microbes. That’s why they’re so protective for us as well and why they have similar effects in our own bodies – it’s what they were created for. Plants are not so different from us!

Just as our skin gets darker in response to sunlight, plants often produce coloured pigments to shield their fruits from damaging rays. One of the main roles of these pigments is to protect their cells and DNA, and when we eat them they do the same for us. This is why we talk about eating the rainbow, and why fruits or vegetables that are deeper in colour are thought to be healthier for us – they have more phytonutrients / antioxidants. Different combinations of pigments produce unique colours, so getting a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables ensures access to a range of health-promoting antioxidants – which is exactly what we want. Fruits and veggies of similar colours also often have similar health benefits so that can be a good way to categorise them in your brain!

Getting more antioxidants

As long as you eat the occasional fresh fruit or vegetable, our diets all contain antioxidants. But like I said, we can pretty much all benefit from increasing the amount we’re getting to constantly slide the scale away from too much oxidative stress. This is one of the primary ways I ‘hack’ my diet – eating foods that I know to be high in antioxidants – in other words, what are often called “superfoods”.

I try to eat at least a couple of the following foods with every meal (it’s a broad list so it’s not too difficult), and make an effort to choose more nutrient-rich foods and a wide variety of them when I’m shopping.

Antioxidant-rich foods

• Berries – these are little powerhouses of nutrition. The extra-special ones are goji, açai, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries & blackberries. But all of them pack a serious nutritional punch!

• Beans – again all of them are full of antioxidants and kidney beans take the prize.

• Dark chocolate – and pure cacao too!

• Nuts – especially pecans and walnuts

• Grapes & their seeds – hence the red wine!

• Leafy greens – the darker the better

• Yellow/orange fruits & vegetables – these are high in carotenes which are excellent antioxidants. They are also usually good sources of vitamin A for an extra bonus!

• Red fruits & vegetables – these are often rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant with special benefits for the prostate and cardiovascular health

• Blue & purple fruits & vegetables – these are usually great sources of anthocyanins, another type of antioxidant with diverse health benefits

• Green tea – and white tea too

• Herbs and spices – like cinnamon, clove, cumin, oregano, coriander and parsley

• And the dreaded superfood powders… There are so many to choose from, they taste kinda weird and they’re touted with all sorts of supposed health benefits. It’s a bit of a minefield so I’ll talk more about them in future posts but my favourites are:

— Spirulina – one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet

— Turmeric – highly anti-inflammatory, supremely powerful

— Maca – great for energy levels and hormone balancing

— Açai – just a boatload of antioxidants

— Pure cacao – I’m obsessed with the nibs!

And finally…

I hope you’ve found some useful info here about antioxidants. They’re an amazing class of nutrient that can be overlooked because they don’t perform ‘essential’ functions, but they’re vitally important to our overall health and longevity. Upping your intake of antioxidant-rich foods also means you’re getting a lot of other important nutrients too – all important for our physical health, our mood, energy levels and beyond – so you can’t really go wrong!

If you’ve read this far, thank you – have a wonderful day! Clarissa xx