‘Antioxidant’ is a major buzz word in health and nutrition. But what exactly is an antioxidant? And, is this just another fake marketing term like ‘superfood’? The short answer is: no, antioxidants aren’t a fad. Essentially, antioxidants are substances that protect our bodies against the harmful effects of free radicals or limit their actions. They are extremely important in keeping us healthy. Let us explain.
Why are they important?
Free radicals are highly unstable and reactive molecules that can damage cell membranes, proteins and DNA within cells. To become more stable, free radicals find and steal electrons from other surrounding molecules. In the process of doing this, the radical itself becomes stable, but creates other unstable molecules in the process (Sizer and Whitney 2017).
This goes on to initiate a chain reaction of free radical production which, if left unchecked, is what leads to long-term damaging effects and potentially increases the risk a person may have of developing a disease (Pham-Huy et al. 2008).
Free radicals are produced naturally within the body as a product of biochemical processes that are continuously taking place, including during energy production. They are also created upon exposure to UV light, cigarette smoke, environmental pollutants and stress. Therefore, constantly balancing their production with sufficient antioxidants is vital to staying healthy (Pham-Huy et al. 2008).
What are they?
Some compounds in foods act as free radical scavengers, for example, Vitamins A, C and E, B-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) and phytochemicals (Karpinski and Rosenbloom 2017, Sizer and Whitney 2017). Each have a different role in the body’s antioxidant defence system. Fat-soluble Vitamin E is especially important for maintaining cell membrane structure (Sizer and Whitney 2017). Meanwhile, water-soluble Vitamin C has a two-fold approach: It scavenges free radicals as well as helps regenerate Vitamin E during its antioxidant activities (Sizer and Whitney 2017).
Our bodies also produce antioxidant enzymes. These include superoxide dismutase (of which copper and manganese play an important part) and glutathione peroxidase (where selenium is important) (Karpinski and Rosenbloom 2017).
How do we get more?
It’s important to include enough of these micronutrients in our diets. However, supplementation can sometimes be unnecessary and, in some cases, there is a fine line between adequate intakes and ingesting levels that may have a detrimental effect (Karpinski and Rosenbloom 2017, Sizer and Whitney 2017).
Instead, look at making little tweaks to up your intake naturally from the food you eat. For example, try spreading half an avocado on bread or toast as a Vitamin E-rich alternative to butter or margarine. Meanwhile, chop 1-2 brazil nuts and 3-4 dried apricots into muesli for a good source of selenium and vitamin A. For Vitamin C, eat 2-3 servings of fruit daily (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and kiwi fruits are all great sources of Vitamin C; not just oranges) and, for polyphenols, eat green leafy salads.
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Karpinski, C. and Rosenbloom, C.A., 2017. Sports nutrition: a handbook for professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Pham-Huy, L.A., He, H. and Pham-Huy, C., 2008. Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health. International journal of biomedical science: IJBS, 4(2), p.89.
Sizer, F.S. and Whitney, E. (2017) Nutrition Concepts and Controversies 15th Edition. Cengage Learning Inc.