Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body.
Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if their levels become too high in your body. They’re linked to multiple illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Your body has its own antioxidant defenses to keep free radicals in check. However, if you don’t obtain enough antioxidants to fight off those free radicals, it can turn out to be a nightmare situation when it could have been easily dealt with.
Antioxidants are found in food, especially in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based, whole foods. Several vitamins, such as vitamins E and C, are effective antioxidants.
Then how these free radicals function?
Free radicals are constantly being formed in your body.
Without antioxidants, free radicals would cause serious harm very quickly, eventually resulting in death.
However, free radicals also serve important functions that are essential for health.
For example, your immune cells use free radicals to fight infections.
As a result, your body needs to maintain a certain balance of free radicals and antioxidants.
When free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it can lead to a state called oxidative stress.
Prolonged oxidative stress can damage your DNA and other important molecules in your body. Sometimes it even leads to cell death.
Damage to your DNA increases your risk of cancer, and some scientists have theorized that it plays a pivotal role in the aging process.
Several lifestyle, stress, and environmental factors are known to promote excessive free radical formation and oxidative stress such as cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol, radiation and many other toxic chemicals and pollution.
Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.
Your body generates its own antioxidants, such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione.
Plants and animals, as well as all other forms of life, have their own defenses against free radicals and oxidative damage.
Therefore, antioxidants are found in all whole foods of plant and animal origin.
Adequate antioxidant intake is important. In fact, your life depends on the intake of certain antioxidants — namely, vitamins C and E.
However, many other non-essential antioxidants occur in food. While they’re unnecessary for your body, they play an important role in general health.
The health benefits associated with a diet rich in plants is at least partially due to the variety of antioxidants they provide.
Berries, green tea, coffee, and dark chocolate are renowned for being good sources of antioxidants.
According to some studies, coffee is the single biggest source of antioxidants in the Western diet, but this is partly because the average individual doesn’t eat that many antioxidant-rich foods.
Meat products and fish also contain antioxidants, but to a lesser extent than fruits and vegetables.
Antioxidants can increase the shelf life of both natural and processed foods. Therefore, they’re frequently used as food additives. For instance, vitamin C is often added to processed foods to act as a preservative.
Antioxidants can be categorized as either water- or fat-soluble.
Water-soluble antioxidants perform their actions in the fluid inside and outside cells, whereas fat-soluble ones act primarily in cell membranes.
Important dietary antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C. This water-soluble antioxidant is an essential dietary nutrient.
- Vitamin E. This fat-soluble antioxidant plays a critical role in protecting cell membranes against oxidative damage.
- Flavonoids. This group of plant antioxidants has many beneficial health effects.
Many substances that happen to be antioxidants also have other important functions.
Notable examples include curcuminoids in turmeric and oleocanthal in extra virgin olive oil. These substances function as antioxidants but also have potent anti-inflammatory activity
The bottom line is that adequate antioxidant intake is essential to a healthy diet, although some studies suggest that high-dose supplements may be harmful.
The best strategy is to get your daily dose of antioxidants from healthy plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables.