The truth behind antioxidants and food
When you buy that organic mixed berry juice that touts extra antioxidants and protection from free radicals, do you really understand what that means, or do you buy it because the industry says it's good for you? Most of us would say the latter unless you have a fairly decent memory of Chemistry 101. So the question is what are antioxidants, what do they do and are they important to put in your diet?
For this, we need a quick blast from the past, with a basic breakdown of the atom. Words you may remember are nucleus, electrons and molecules. So very quickly, electrons create chemical reactions, which bond atoms together to create molecules. They can only do this function in the body if the electrons orbiting the nucleus are in even numbers, two on the first ring, eight on the second ring etc. The goal is for the body to always have stable atoms, which means they are always trying to reach maximum electrons in their outer orbit by gaining, losing or sharing electrons through bonding.
Now to free radicals. These guys are unstable and cause chaos in the body at a molecular level, and if it is not stopped leads to degenerative diseases from dementia to atherosclerosis. When a molecule is split with an odd number of electrons, a free radical is formed. This unstable atom then steals its needed electron from the closest molecule, starting a chain reaction of electron theft. As each stable molecule is robbed of one electron, it then robs one from the next eventually destroying a cell. This cellular damage later compounds with age.
Here come antioxidants to the rescue. Antioxidants are nutrients which contain molecules that stop the oxidation chain by supplying one of their own electrons to the odd numbered molecule ending the thieving spree. Antioxidants are stable with even or odd electrons in their outer shells and therefore flow around the body donating lost electrons to damaged molecules and ending cellular damage. Now there are hundreds of substances that act as electron donating antioxidants, and each one does a different job. So there is no magic food, drink or pill that will completely stop free radicals, but a healthy balance of them all will certainly do wonders for cellular damage.
The most popular antioxidants are Vitamins A, C, E, beta-carotene, flavonoids, lutein and selenium. This does not mean to only eat these or take them in abundance. Antioxidants are found in hundreds of foods and should not be overloaded on the system.
Here are your fundamental five. Try to eat something from each group at least once a day or mix in a couple of them.
1. Vitamin A: sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, dried apricots, cantaloupe, leafy greens, bell peppers, mangos
2. Vitamin C: guavas, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, citrus fruits, cooked tomatoes, chili peppers, cauliflower
Read more about Myth vs Fact: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Vitamin C.
3. Vitamin E: almonds, sunflower seeds, avocados, olive oil, butternut squash, pumpkin, olives, nuts
4. Beta Carotene: basil, chives, asparagus, passion fruit, watercress, leeks, zucchini
Read more about Veggie Anatomy 101: Carrots.
5. Flavonoids: onions, apples, all berries, quinoa, cabbage, watermelon, garbanzo beans, black or green tea.
Those are the top five richest sources of antioxidants, but the real beauty of antioxidants is they are found in all plant based foods. Leafy greens alone are filled with vitamins A, C, K, manganese, magnesium, riboflavin and flavonoids. Everything that grows from the earth has free radical fighting molecules. So don't worry about supplements or antioxidant loaded drinks. If you eat smart and load up on plant based foods, your body will do the rest for you.