What's the Deal with Antioxidants?

Posted by Renee Chan on

Image by Jenő Szabó from Pixabay 

Chances are you’ve seen the word “antioxidant” bouncing around. Whether in a smoothie or a social media post, antioxidants are gaining widespread popularity, and we’re encouraged to eat foods rich in them. 

But how exactly are antioxidants helpful to our bodies and what foods should we be eating?

What Exactly ARE Antioxidants?

When we exercise or are exposed to environmental factors like air pollution or smoke, our body naturally produces unstable molecules called “free radicals.” In small amounts, free radicals are harmless, but in large amounts, they can lead to oxidative stress - i.e. damaging the cells in our body (1) and even result in neurodegeneration (2). 

Excessive oxidative stress is also linked to neurological diseases and is the reason we age (2). Antioxidants help stabilize and prevent the formation of free radicals, which reduces cell damage. 

But Wait...

If you read the previous paragraph closely, exercising produces free radicals. This seems to contradict the physical activity advice we have been hearing for ages. But it doesn’t, and the explanation is quite simple. 

Exercising results in free radicals, which positively impacts brain function and helps regulate antioxidants in the body. In other words, by improving brain function, our bodies can help antioxidants do their work more efficiently (2). Improved brain function also means a lower risk of neurological diseases, so exercise is definitely still on the table. 

So, Where Can I Get Them?

Great news! Antioxidants come in the form of vitamins and minerals, some of which you probably already eat! Vitamin antioxidants include vitamin E, A, and C, stabilizing and preventing the formation of free radicals. The easiest way to get antioxidants is to find colourful fruits and vegetables, for example, sweet potatoes (orange), spinach (green), and berries (red or blue!) (3). 

You can also take supplements but there’s inadequate research to support their effectiveness. This is likely because they’re more effective when taken with food that has other beneficial nutrients and chemicals (4). But why bother taking a supplement for something you can consume naturally through a large variety of foods?

Antioxidants is a term used to hype up certain food products. You might even feel like you needed to change your diet completely to maximize antioxidant intake. But in reality, they’re a lot easier to get as long as you incorporate a variety of plant foods in your diet. So when in doubt, get colourful!

Remember to always consult with a dietitian healthcare professional before starting any diet or supplementation program. 

Written by: Sadhri Kumar
Edited by: Ev Wong

References:

  1. “Antioxidants: In-Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,
    www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth. Accessed 17 Jan. 2021.
  2. Thirupathi, Anand, et al. “Physical Exercise: An Inducer of Positive Oxidative Stress in Skeletal Muscle Aging.” Life Sciences, vol. 252, 2020, p. 117630, doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2020.117630.
  3. “High Antioxidant Foods.” WebMD, www.webmd.com/diet/high-antioxidant-foods#2. Accessed 24 Jan. 2021.
  4. “Antioxidants.” The Nutrition Source, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants. Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.

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