Antioxidants are the “soldiers,” so to speak, that fights off harmful free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules, which can damage DNA, cell membranes and other parts of the cells. Due to the lack of a full complement of electrons, they steal these from other molecules, damaging the molecules in the process. Antioxidants fight off these unstable molecules, by neutralizing free radicals. By “sacrificing” some of their own electrons, the unstable molecules are “switched off.” This breaks a chain reaction that can affect other molecules in the cells, as well as other cells in the body. Antioxidants, however, does not refer to a cell or nutritional property. Rather, it is a chemical property. Examples are certain vitamins and minerals, like vitamins C and E, and Copper, Zinc and Selenium.
The very nature of free radicals causes it to be damaging; however, they are an inescapable part of life. Our bodies generate free radicals in response to environmental insults, such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet rays, air pollution, and so forth. However, free radicals are also a natural by product of normal processes in the cells. When our immune system musters to fight these intrudes (viruses, bacteria and damaged body cells), the oxygen used spins off an army of free radicals, which destroys these intruders. This is called an oxidative burst.
Interestingly, the normal production of free radicals also occurs during exercise. This is necessary in order to induce some of the beneficial effects of regular, physical activity, so as to sensitize your muscle cells to insulin. There are many foodstuffs that contain natural antioxidants. Indeed, a supplement is not a bad idea if you don’t eat a healthy diet. Do remember, though, that supplements are not to be used as substitute for foodstuffs. Supplements are mainly used as a tool to add to your diet; especially if you eat non-organic foods.
Vitamin C is found in oranges, tomatoes, kiwi, red peppers, guava, pineapples, lemons, broccoli, mangos and cantaloupe.
Vitamin E is found in sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter, tomatoes, pine nuts, apricots, seaweed, avocado, soymilk and acai.
Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, sardines, ham, shrimp, beef, chicken, cottage cheese and eggs.
Beta-carotene is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, peppers, kale, apricot, spinach, peas, cantaloupe and squash.
Lycopene foods include guavas, bell peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, grapefruit, persimmon, mangoes, papaya and watermelon.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are found in spinach, collard greens, turnip, kale, peas, squash, parsley, zucchini, edamame and pumpkin.
Anthocyanin rich foods (a subclass of phytochemicals), are found in red apples, bilberry, black current, black olives, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, chokeberries, cranberries and elderberries.
Certain herbs, spices and nuts also contain antioxidants. These include ground cloves, oregano leaf, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, turmeric powder, walnuts, basil leaf, yellow mustard seed and pecans.
Last, but definitely not least, is chocolate! Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants; especially those containing 70% or higher cocoa. So, next time you want to eat a piece, or 2, of your favourite chocolate, make sure it is a dark chocolate!