What antioxidants do,and the most powerful antioxidant foods, is a wildly popular topic. This is part one of two on this hot topic.
I was inspired to write this when I was asked to blog about the most popular super antioxidants, like acai and pomegranate. But what seems a little more appropriate is a brief explanation of what antioxidants really do. The truth is, there is no need to spend all that extra money and increase our carbon footprint for exotic ‘magic berries’ when excellent sources of antioxidant foods grow right in our own back yard.
Over the last few years we have all heard the words “free radicals” and “antioxidants” used quite a lot. The two words go hand-in-hand, but what do you really know about them, and how they affect your health, and what food has to do with the whole equation?
Before you run off to spend your hard-earned money on “magic berries,” let’s take a look at what is happening.
What is an Antioxidant?
An antioxidant is a molecule capable of inhibiting a chemical reaction where electrons transfer from one substance to another. This swapping of electrons between molecules can, and frequently does, produce free radicals, which is nothing more than an incomplete molecule, atom, or ion missing an electron. A missing electron can cause the radicals to be highly prone to other chemical reactions as a result of the positive or negative charge. Radicals, if allowed to run free in the body, are believed to be involved in degenerative diseases and cancers.
What are Free Radicals?
It is very important to understand that all free radicals are not bad or evil. This exchange of electrons and chemical reactions are a fundamental key to metabolism and all of the things that make life possible. Where we run into problems is when the body becomes overwhelmed with the numbers of free radicals and is in short supply of the tools it needs to keep this process in check. That is where the antioxidants come into play.
How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants are a collective of vitamins, metabolites and enzymes. Organisms contain a complex network of antioxidants that work together to prevent oxidative damage to cellular components such as DNA, proteins and lipids. In general, antioxidant systems either prevent these reactive species from being formed, or remove them before they can damage vital components of the cell. However, since free radicals such as reactive oxygen species do have useful functions in cells, the function of antioxidant systems is not to remove oxidants entirely, but instead to keep them at an optimum level.
Although there are few issues known about excessive antioxidants, there is scientific research that shows vitamin C to become a pro-oxidant in mega-doses. It is very difficult to achieve therapeutic or ‘mega-doses’ though whole foods.
Measurement of antioxidants in foods is not a straightforward process, as this is a diverse group of compounds that fulfill different needs within the body. Antioxidants are typically divided into two groups: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water Soluble and Fat Soluble Antioxidants
In general, water-soluble antioxidants react with oxidants inside the cell and the blood plasma, while fat-soluble antioxidants protect cell membranes from lipid damage. It is also true that when we argue for whole foods, we are acknowledging the synergistic element of having all the nutrients within that food behaving as co-factors for a more effective reaction within the body. Whole foods naturally contain vitamins, metabolites, and enzymes until we expose them to air, heat, and microwaves as commonly found in food processing. In general, processed foods contain fewer antioxidants than fresh and uncooked foods.
What antioxidants do sounds complex, but rest assured if you are eating a healthy diet rich in whole foods, you are doing just fine without exotic berries!
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