The Real Deal on Antioxidants

Saad Rana Jul 17 2014

We’ve discussed the importance of including antioxidant-rich foods in your diet plan in various articles. But what exactly are antioxidants and why are they so highly revered by health experts? In this article we will explore and discuss several aspects of these vital compounds, and debunk certain myths in the process.

What Are Antioxidants?

‘Anti’ means against, and ‘oxidant’ refers to a reactant in a chemical process. Put the two together and you get the term antioxidant, which means a reaction that inhibits or goes against the oxidation of other molecules in a chemical process. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that produces free radical compounds. We will carry out a detailed discussion on free radicals shortly but for now you should just know that they cause cell damage.
If the explanation so far seems complicated, here’s the crux of what you should remember: antioxidants are chemicals that can prevent or slow down cell damage. Antioxidant properties counteract the production of free radicals.

What Are Free Radicals?

Since the entire chemical process is a tad bit complicated, we’re going to keep things as simple as possible. The cells in your body contain both positive and negative charges. The cell is neutral i.e. its charges are equally paired. However, when the cells are exposed to oxygen, they break down through a process known as oxidation. The charged particles are now left without pairs i.e. they are free. This is why these cells are known as free radicals.
The problem arises when these free radicals try to achieve their old state of stability by converting other stable cells to free radicals. This kicks off a chain reaction that has the power to cause oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to critical diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, cognitive decline, and eye conditions like macular degeneration.
Factors that encourage free radical formation include exercising without a healthy diet plan, energy conversion from carbohydrate-rich foods, air pollution and cigarette smoke.

How Do Antioxidants Work?

Antioxidant compounds are one of the chief defense mechanisms used by the body to prevent free radical formation. They prevent or slow down cell damage, in effect neutralizing the harmful chain reaction that free radicals can set off.

So Where Do I Find These Antioxidants?

There are seven specific antioxidants that work against free radicals. They are vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, beta-carotene, selenium, flavonoids and lignan. Vitamins A, C and E are not only excellent antioxidants, but are also essential for other bodily processes. For more information on the bevy of benefits offered by each, read The Guide to Vitamins and Minerals.
You’ll find:

  • Vitamin A in nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, whole grains, fresh vegetables and vegetable oil, olive oil, canola oil and avocados.
  • Vitamin C in citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruit), tomatoes, green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach), and strawberries.
  • Vitamin A in eggs, baked sweet potatoes, squash, mangoes, cantaloupe, broccoli, carrots, apricots, prunes and kale.
  • Beta-carotene in carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and squash.
  • Selenium in Brazil nuts, fish and shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, garlic and milk.
  • Flavonoids in soy, pomegranate, cranberries, blueberries, green tea and dark chocolate.
  • Lignan in flax seeds, barley, rye and oats. A hearty breakfast of oatmeal to start your day is a great way to get your daily dose of lignan.

Debunking the Myth

While antioxidants do what they are meant to do as chemical substances, there is very little scientific proof that they hold the magic cure for heart disease, stroke or cancer.
In fact, some findings show that consuming extra beta-carotene can actually increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Several randomized clinical trials have confirmed that cancer patients who took antioxidant supplements during their treatment did not show any signs of improvement. Studies involving heart disease and stroke suggest that antioxidants do not benefit those with cardiovascular diseases. The exception in this case is vitamin E, which has shown to be beneficial for women with cardiovascular diseases.
Research has also been conducted to disprove that all free radicals are bad for health. The body actually requires a certain number of free radicals in circulation to kill cancer cells and bacteria. Taking too many antioxidants can negate the beneficial roles of free radicals, and cause further disease and illness.

Living Life the Healthy Way

While antioxidants are essential for healthy living, moderation is the key for sustainable well-being. The secret to a happy and healthy life is the ability to make smart choices. If you want to pursue exercise, be sure to include antioxidant rich foods in your post-exercise snack (Read: What Should You Eat Before and After a Workout). If you want to reduce free-radical formation during energy generation and conversion, be sure to cut down on your carbohydrate consumption. Opt for foods that contain complex carbs (Read: Carbohydrates: What You Should Know About Them). The amount of air pollution may not be under your control, but cigarette smoke can be dealt with.
The bottom line is quite straightforward: Opt for anti-oxidant rich foods but ensure that the intake is being moderated and controlled. Remember, with good health comes happiness and well-being. So make the right choices for a healthy mind and body!

Saad Rana

Saad Rana:

As a current dental student at Ziauddin University, Saad takes an interest in health, fitness and nutrition. He writes articles based on research through on-line publications as well as consulting various doctors and nutrition and fitness experts. When he's not writing for Health TV, you can find him studying, exercising or watching some of his favourite TV shows.