What you need to know about antioxidants

Find out what an antioxidant is and where we can find them.

Antioxidants are defined as substances typically found in foods that significantly decrease the adverse effects of free radicals on normal functions of the body, according to Understanding Nutrition. To explain what exactly that means, imagine a group of toddlers, and there is only one adult taking care of them. The poor behavior of one toddler sends a chain reaction to the whole group, and with only one adult, now there is a whole room of screaming kids who are tearing apart everything in their path. Now, imagine if each of those toddlers had a caring adult to take care of them. All of their needs would be met and no damage would be done. This is an over-simplified comparison of what free radicals are and how antioxidants help reduce the harmful effects.

Now, to explain it a little more clinically, our body is made up of elements, each with a varying “charge”. Ideally, elements combine to form a strong bond among these “charges”. Free radicals are basically extra charges that are not bonded to another, that can cause damage to cells in our body (a toddler without an adult). A free radical (toddler) searches out another compound to steal an electron (the sole adult in this scenario) from it, so that it has a “pair”, and becomes stable. However, in doing so, the formerly stable compound (the single adult caregiver in the room) becomes a free radical itself (another toddler), and this reaction continues until there are many more free radicals in the body. Now, let’s introduce an antioxidant (an adult for each toddler), and they provide electrons to pair with the unpaired free radicals, now all of the free radicals are cared for and little to no damage is done.

The damage that free radicals can cause varies from wrinkles to chronic diseases such as cancer, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes and heart disease. What is really important to protect our body from free radicals is to avoid the compounds that produce free radicals as much as possible, such as smoking, sunlight or a poor diet AND consume a nutritious diet that provides vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. These dietary components are important for making enzymes that protect against free radicals as well as providing the electrons to pair with the free radicals and stop the chain reaction of harmful effects.

The following chart lists some of these antioxidants and dietary sources of them:

Antioxidant

Food Source

Vitamin C

Oranges & other citrus fruits, Bell Peppers, Broccoli, kiwi fruit, berries, watermelon, potatoes

Vitamin E

Vegetable oils, wheat germ oil, egg yolks, nuts, seeds

Carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene)

 

 

Dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, broccoli, tomatoes, deep orange fruits and vegetables such as apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash

Flavonoids

Blueberries, tea, apples, cocoa

Note that the antioxidants are concentrated in deep colored fruits and vegetables. The take home message here is that by eating a variety of food, and getting the recommended five servings per day of fruits and vegetables, you are sure to get adequate sources of antioxidants in your diet. There are some foods (such as blueberries and kale) that get a lot of press for providing many antioxidants, but don’t discount other desirable foods as they may provide other antioxidants as well. It is worth stating that identifying the specific antioxidant (or other nutrients) in food that is responsible for protecting against certain diseases is difficult, especially because there may be thousands of antioxidants and dozens of nutrients in specific foods that may work individually or collectively.

Michigan State University Extension offers free nutrition classes for SNAP eligible recipients that you can check out here.

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