Benefits of Antioxidants
Antioxidants are fashionable these days. The mass media have done a good job of educating the public about these dietary components and how they can benefit health. But just to be clear, I’ll review: Antioxidants are naturally occurring chemicals in food that help neutralize free radicals in the body. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can wreck havoc within cells if they are not neutralized. The body makes some of its own antioxidants, but it relies on the diet to supply many more. Some of these dietary antioxidants even help regenerate the antioxidant potency of the body’s natural antioxidants once they’re spent.
Free radicals are produced as byproducts of some of the most basic processes of metabolism. They’re inevitable, and sometimes even useful. The immune system, for example, occasionally enlists free radicals to help combat foreign invaders and to kill off abnormal cells that could become cancerous. So free radicals are not always, entirely bad. But for the most part, when there are too many of them, and too few antioxidants available to quench them, the body is in a state of oxidative stress. This fundamental metabolic stress can be just as bad as stress in your daily life: over time it can wear your cells and tissues down and cause the kind of damage that may result in disease.
Some experts believe that aging itself is simply the result of a lifetime of accumulated damage from oxidative stress. According to this theory, eating a diet rich in natural antioxidants should slow down some of the effects of aging.
So which foods are good sources of antioxidants? And which ones encourage oxidative stress? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat: Brightly colored fruits and vegetables tend to be chock full of potent dietary antioxidants. Berries, cherries, grapes...you name it, if it’s a whole fruit or vegetable it’s probably full of antioxidant compounds.
Vitamin C is just one well known antioxidant. It’s present in significant amounts in foods like citrus, mangos, and even onions. But there are many others, including pigments that give fruits their deep blue, black, yellow, orange and red colors. Even wild salmon, with its rich reddish color, packs a potent antioxidant called astaxanthin.
So which foods encourage the opposite effect—namely, oxidative stress? Packaged and processed foods tend to lead the list. They often contain artificial dyes made from petroleum, plus artificial preservatives and other additives. Processed and preserved meats are among the worst offenders. And let’s face it: foods that are exceptionally high in fat and sugar tend to have few, if any, antioxidants, but they definitely encourage oxidative stress. Leave them in their wrappers, and reach for whole foods instead. Your body will thank you.
Soory M. Nutritional antioxidants and their applications in cardiometabolic diseases. Infect Disord Drug Targets. 2012 Oct;12(5):388-401.