We are constantly bombarded with the importance of these things called antioxidants and all the fabulous foods that contain them. If you have been to a supermarket in the last 10 years you would have no doubt noticed the increased advertising of foods being “high in antioxidants. But, on a body level what does this actually mean?
I aim in this blog post to give you a better understanding of what antioxidants actually do and then hopefully you can make better informed choices about what food you eat.
Biochemically, as a result of normal metabolism the body releases reactive oxygen species, also known as free radicals. These free radicals are highly reactive and need to gain an electron to become stable. Therefore, they tend to travel around the body in search of electrons and ultimately can end up stealing them from other important biological molecules. Once these molecules have lost an electron they are considered ‘oxidised’ and their functioning is compromised.
These free radicals can thus wreak havoc in the body as they can so easily oxidise vital proteins and molecules involved in important biological functions.
The role of antioxidants is to donate an electron to stabilise these reactive oxygen species (shown below) and thus prevent them from oxidising other molecules.
Therefore, the idea is to consume as many antioxidants from our diet as we can to maximise the number of electrons donated to free radicals and hence not stolen from other molecules in the body, such as cell membranes, lipids and DNA.
You can see now the name antioxidant is derived from their ability to prevent (anti) the oxidation of molecules in the body.
But you might be thinking now, well why is oxidation bad?
Oxidation in the body can lead to many harmful processes, one such being the oxidation of LDL’s (bad cholesterol) in the lining of coronary arteries. This leads to plaque formation (atherosclerosis) and eventually potentially can cause a heart attack. The oxidation of DNA can cause devastating effects such as the development of certain cancers and oxidation in the brain can damage nerve cells and lead to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
I hope that explanation helps to clear up exactly why on a biological level antioxidants are so important!
However, if you feel inclined to buy more foods labelled “high in antioxidants” I urge that you sway on the side of caution because the best source of antioxidants comes from foods that are not labelled or packaged – fresh fruit and vegetables!
Some natural foods high in antioxidants include:
- Blueberries (try to get organic where possible)
- Black berries, strawberries… pretty much any berry!
- Grapes – the darker the better
- Spinach and kale
- Onion and garlic
- Sweet potato
- Green tea
So as you can see many fresh fruit and vegetables are great sources of antioxidants and very important to incorporate into a balanced diet.