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Your Master Guide to Antioxidants, Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress

The role of antioxidants in nutrition is one of the most confusing health topics. No one really knows what they do, and if you're one of the gifted ones that managed to understand what they are, then maybe the meaning of the terms "free radicals" or "oxidative stress" still baffle you. It takes a good amount of knowledge in chemistry and biology to grasp the full magnitude of how important antioxidants are. Luckily, we are here to help you absorb that knowledge.

Antioxidants, Free Radicals, and Oxidative Stress

antioxidants food examples
Antioxidants are sometimes referred to as "free-radical scavengers" due to their ability to neutralize free radicals. These are the waste by-product of both natural biological processes and the body's reactions to the environment. Their unstable molecular structure can cause a chain reaction that damages cells. Factors that increase free radicals can be internal, like inflammation, or external, through sources like pollution, UV exposure, and cigarette smoke. This video explains that interaction:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

As mentioned in the video, when the body can't dispose of free radicals effectively, there's oxidative stress. In addition to accelerated skin aging, oxidative stress has been linked to "heart disease, cancer, arthritis, stroke, respiratory diseases, immune deficiency, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, and other inflammatory or ischemic conditions," according to Medical News Today.

The body produces some antioxidant enzymes on its own, but other essential antioxidants must be absorbed from our diet. Some of the antioxidants our body produces through metabolism are quite well known: coenzyme Q10, melatonin, uric acid, lipoic acid, and transferrin.

The Best Sources of Antioxidants

antioxidants raspberries, strawberries and blueberries
Here's a partial list of antioxidants and where you can get them:
  • Vitamin A
    Dairy produce, eggs, liver, carrots, and fatty fish.
  • Vitamin C
    Found in most plant foods but there are higher amounts in all berries, oranges, and red bell pepper.
  • Vitamin E
    Nuts and seeds, sunflower and other vegetable oils, and leafy green vegetables.
  • Beta-carotene
    Carrots, peas, spinach, and mangoes.
  • Lycopene
    Cooked tomatoes, watermelon, and all pink and red plant foods.
  • Lutein
    Green, leafy vegetables, corn, papaya, and oranges.
  • Selenium
    Rice, corn, wheat, and other whole grains, as well as nuts, eggs, cheese, and legumes.

Other antioxidant-rich foods are eggplants, green and black teas, beets, red grapes, dark chocolate, pomegranates, goji berries, kale, apples, pears, red cabbage, and broccoli. Spices that have a high antioxidant activity are turmeric, cumin, oregano, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. Keep in mind that cauliflower, peas, and zucchini lose much of their antioxidants when cooked.

The best source of antioxidants are plant-based foods, namely fruits and vegetables. The richer in color, the better. Each antioxidant is unique and has a specific function. They are not interchangeable, so there's a great significance in consuming a varied diet.

Easy Daily Habits to Increase Your Antioxidant Intake

antioxidants magnets on blackboard
This is a lot of information to take in, and the kitchen cabinet door is already covered in lists and lists of healthy foods. As another article of ours suggests, incorporating your newfound knowledge into daily habits is a great method of easily retaining knowledge in the head. Here are some daily habits you can embrace to increase antioxidant intake:
  • Add one fruit or vegetable to every meal and snack. Add nuts, especially pecans and Brazil nuts, to one meal a day. This will also increase your fiber intake.
  • Enjoy a cup of green tea or matcha tea daily.
  • Eat the rainbow! Foods with high antioxidant activity are rich in color.
  • Dried fruits and sunflower seeds are also great snacks for high antioxidant activity.

Is There a Catch?

antioxidants food examples
One study conducted in 29,133 male smokers aged 50-69 found that "supplementation with (beta)-carotene increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers regardless of the tar or nicotine content of cigarettes smoked." Another study in 35,533 males aged 50 and older has shown that "Dietary supplementation with Vitamin E significantly increases the risk of prostate cancer among healthy men."
These facts do not contradict the tremendous health benefits of antioxidants, nor are they meant to scare you. The safest way to consume antioxidants is through the diet. That way you can be sure that the doses are just right for your body. If you'd like to start taking supplements, consult with your physician first, as all supplements may interact with other medications. In addition, people with cancer should avoid taking antioxidant supplements, as cancerous cells can harness the antioxidant activity to gain more immunity.
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