What are antioxidants and why do they matter? Learn all about these dynamic compounds, where to find them, and how they keep us healthy.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are simply compounds that slow down damage to the cells. In a sense, they act as protective shields in our bodies. They’ll fend off attackers and make them harmless to us. Antioxidants keep our cells healthy and protect us from diseases.
Colloquially, we also call them “radical scavengers” because they combine with so-called harmful free radicals, which are unpaired atoms with an unpaired electron. Thus, they protect our body cells from oxidation and damage, which could come in the form of heart disease or damaged skin.
Since free radicals aren’t balanced, they’re “attacking” other substances to capture the missing electron. If, for example, a free radical snatches an electron from a fatty acid in our cell membrane, it damages the body cell. In addition, a chain reaction (the so-called lipid peroxidation) occurs. This forms new free radicals again and again.
On a large scale, such reactions can damage our cell membranes and also our genetic material in the cells. So we obviously want to minimize damage from free radicals, which promote the development of various diseases such as arteriosclerosis, heart disease, cataracts, and cancer.
Where Do Free Radicals Come From?
Our body constantly produces free radicals through metabolic processes. In addition, we take them in through the air and our food. Smoking, UV radiation, stress, and environmental pollution also increasingly produce free radicals. They weaken our immune system and accelerate skin aging – making us look old in the truest sense of the word. Due to increasing environmental pollution, we are increasingly exposed to the attack of free radicals. This is known as oxidative stress.
What Do Antioxidants Do?
The human organism has many enzymes and substances, such as glutathione, which have the ability to combine with free radicals. In addition to the body’s own antioxidants, our food also contains a large number of radical scavengers. These primarily include antioxidant supplements or vitamins such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E, lycopene, vitamin A, and beta-carotene.
Beta-carotene occurs in plant foods, combines with free radicals, and dissipates their energy in the form of heat. One can find vitamin E in our cell membranes. It protects the unsaturated fatty acids stored in the cell membrane from free radicals by providing them with one of its electrons and thus rendering them harmless. If the free radical has already attacked a fatty acid, vitamin E can provide this fatty acid with an electron and thus “repair” the fatty acid again.
The antioxidant vitamin C, in turn, provides vitamin E with an electron if it has already released an electron to a free radical. Vitamin C thus ensures the regeneration of vitamin E. The trace elements zinc and selenium as well as the secondary plant substances such as polyphenols and phytic acid also have antioxidant properties.
Antioxidants as Food Additives
In addition to the natural occurrence of antioxidants, the food industry also uses radical scavengers as antioxidants in order to extend the shelf life of foods. Here they prevent oxidation, too, i.e. the reaction with oxygen. So they delay undesirable processes in food that have adverse effects on quality, smell, and taste as well as appearance. The food industry uses naturally occurring antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E, as well as synthetically produced antioxidants such as sulfur dioxide, sulfites or phosphates.
Should You Take Antioxidant Supplements?
In an ideal world, you’re much better off eating fresh and high-quality food than taking dietary supplements. Not only is your body better able to absorb them, but supplements aren’t cheap!
Nutritional supplements can provide isolated antioxidants, but not the “total package” we find in vegetables and fruit. The nutrient-rich fruits contain numerous secondary plant substances – small miracle weapons against free radicals. No food supplement in the world can even come close to imitating this totality and the interaction of the health-promoting ingredients in real foods. But if you’re in a place where you’re not able to eat a healthy diet, a good quality supplement is better than nothing!
Tips for an Antioxidant-Rich Nutrition
While many foods have anti-inflammatory or anti-aging benefits, food preparation matters. Many antioxidants sit under the skin of fruits or vegetables. So when possible, do not peel the fruits, but wash them thoroughly under running water. A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables supplies you well with secondary plant substances keeping your chock full of antioxidant supplements.
Experts recommend five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. You can supplement those with whole grain products, as most antioxidants sit in the outer layers of the grain.
Even your morning cup of coffee gives you some great antioxidant benefits. All the more reason to enjoy it Coffee naturally contains polyphenols, which are also antioxidants. You can also get these from green tea, red wine, or a piece of dark chocolate with a high cocoa content.
Triple Berry Smoothie
- ¼ cup blueberries
- ¼ cup raspberries
- ¼ cup strawberries
- ¼ banana
- ¼ cup plain or vanilla yogurt
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 ice cubes
- Put strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, banana, yogurt, skim milk and honey in blender and blend. Add the ice cubes and blend until smooth.
- Paprika, oranges, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, are great sources of vitamin C.
- Vitamin E is found in flaxseed, hazelnuts, almonds, and wheat germ oil.
- Beta-carotene is found in colorful vegetables and fruits such as beetroot, spinach, mango, carrots, and kale.
- The trace element zinc is found in meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and whole-grain products.
- Good sources of selenium are fish, meat, nuts, legumes, and whole-grain cereals.
Fruit and vegetables should correspond to the seasonal offerings and come best from open agriculture for maximum health benefits. It is also important to prepare the food gently (by slow cooking or eating it raw) in order to keep your food’s nutrients.
How to Keep Your Body Fit and Healthy with Antioxidants
Fuel your body with natural antioxidants and consume a balanced and vitamin-rich diet. That’s the simplest way to get enough antioxidants. Add in getting enough exercise and doing whatever you need to reduce stress goes a long way towards your health and happiness.