Antioxidants are a nutrition topic that’s had staying power for decades as other nutrition trends come and go. Why? Because although antioxidants can be overhyped at times, there is actual substance behind the hype.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals — substances that occur naturally in the body but can damage cells and DNA.
“Antioxidants are simply compounds that protect cells against oxidation — or the effects of free radicals — and they’re found all around us, in many types of foods and drinks,” says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, owner of Champagne Nutrition and author of “Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep” and “How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.”
Hultin points out that the body is in constant flux and needs antioxidants to help naturally quench the oxidation that occurs by simply living — breathing, metabolizing, detoxing. “These processes create natural free radical damage, and the balance is that we get antioxidants from the foods we eat,” she says.
Our bodies do a pretty good job of keeping free radicals in check by producing their own antioxidants — but poor diet and exposure to cigarette smoke, pollution, radiation, and environmental toxins can produce more free radicals than your body can handle. The resulting oxidation can accelerate aging and increase the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
Counterintuitively, antioxidants in excess can also be oxidant, and oxidation isn’t always bad, says Michelle Averill, Ph.D., RDN, an associate professor of occupational and health sciences at the University of Washington. “It’s all a system, and we need oxidants and antioxidants in balance,” she says. “When our body increases oxidants, it’s not always negative, sometimes oxidants are a response to something happening in our system and it tells our body to do something.”
How to Find Antioxidants
We sometimes refer to certain nutrients and phytochemicals as antioxidants, but it’s more accurate to say that they have antioxidant properties. For example, vitamin C plays a role in the production of collagen, neurotransmitters, and certain amino acids in the body — and it also functions as an important antioxidant.
“Vitamins and minerals contain antioxidants — including beta-carotene and vitamins C and E — but there are actually thousands of antioxidant compounds,” Averill says. “For example, all the types of polyphenols in tea, coffee, berries, or chocolate. They’ve got flavanols, proanthocyanidins, and anthocyanins among many others.”
Minerals selenium and manganese also have antioxidant properties and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Averill says there may be hundreds of thousands of compounds with antioxidant properties.
Food or Supplements?
Should you get antioxidants from supplements? The short answer is no, in part because there can be too much of a good thing. There was a lot of excitement about antioxidant supplements in the 1990s, until researchers found that large doses increased some health risks — such as increased lung cancer risk in smokers taking beta-carotene — or simply did not deliver on hoped-for benefits. It’s almost impossible to get too many antioxidants from food, and there’s no evidence that taking antioxidant supplements works as well as eating antioxidant-rich food.
“It’s not that we specifically take X micronutrient to increase antioxidants in our bodies. It’s that we eat the foods that support the antioxidant balance in the body,” Averill says. “You can’t overcome an imbalance of antioxidants and oxidants through supplements, but there are definitely dietary patterns that will promote a balance and patterns that would promote an imbalance,” Averill says. “However, it’s difficult to say that it’s all diet. If someone is eating an unhealthy diet and has an imbalance, the culprit could also be environmental factors.”
Each antioxidant serves a different function and is not interchangeable, so it’s important to get an array of antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients, from food. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, coffee and cocoa, and green and black tea all have antioxidant compounds. The common denominator? They’re all plant foods.
“People would be amazed at how many antioxidants they can get naturally through food,” Hultin says. “Simply eating more common foods like carrots, apples, onions, or parsley, for example, can provide a wide array of potent antioxidants.”
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)
By Carrie Dennett, Environmental Nutrition
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