Antioxidants 101 — The Comprehensive Step-By-Step Guide To Antioxidants
Antioxidants are power super enzymes that prevent diseases, create glowing, healthy skin, and increase longevity. Antioxidants protect the body against oxidative damage.
Think about an apple or avocado turning brown, or rust that forms on metal when it’s left outside in the rain — that’s oxidative damage. It’s literally the damaging and aging of cells. Whenever cells use oxygen they produce harmful by-products called free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for the oxidative damage that creates a TON of health problems, including:
- heart disease
- blood clots
- premature aging
- bad skin
- macular degeneration
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and guard the body against everything on the list above.
What are Antioxidants and Free Radicals, and How Do They Work?
Bear with me for a second, but to understand antioxidants and free radicals the chemistry is absolutely key. Atoms have an outer shell with 8 electrons. When the outer shell has 8 electrons it’s considered stable; when it has 7 or fewer electrons it’s considered unstable. An atom’s goal in life is always to reach stability — atoms bond with other unstable atoms by giving, taking, or sharing an electron.
Free radicals are naturally occurring, unstable oxygen atoms that are missing an electron from their outer shell. Regardless of whether you’re Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Biel, or Dr. Oz, everyone has some free radicals floating through their bloodstream. Dangerous levels result from smoking, UV light and tanning, tobacco, pollution, fatty/sugary diets, artificial sweeteners, and even exercise. That’s the interesting paradox of health — even exercise, which is key to health, longevity, and weight-loss, creates harmful byproducts.
That single fact is what make antioxidants so universally appealing (and a marketer’s dream) — literally everyone can benefit from antioxidants. Like all other atoms, a free radical’s goal is to find an electron so that it can become stable. Free radicals search the body ruthlessly for a healthy cell that they can steal an electron from. Once the free radical finds a target cell and steals an electron, that target molecule (which just had its electron stolen) now becomes a BRAND NEW free radical (because it has fewer than 8 electrons, making it unstable)! This newly created free radical now repeats the same process and searches for another healthy molecule to steal an electron from. Hopefully you get the issue. This cycle sets off a chain reaction of cellular destruction, which causes cellular damage, oxidation, disease, and early aging.
Think of antioxidants as the body’s anti-terrorist unit. Their job is to repair oxidative damage, seek out free radicals, and neutralize them before they destroy healthy cells. Antioxidants have an unusual characteristic, a superpower of sorts, which allows them to remain stable even when they have fewer than 8 electrons in their outer shell. An antioxidant with 7, 6, or 5 electrons in its outer shell is stable! When an antioxidant finds a free radical it donates an electron, which fills the free radical’s shell with 8 electrons, and essentially transforms it into a healthy, stable cell. Again, antioxidants DO NOT become free radicals when they give away electrons.
Types of Antioxidants and Sources
Although the body produces some antioxidants on its own, it doesn’t create anywhere near enough to protect the body naturally against free radicals. Because free radicals enter the body constantly, it’s critical to supply the body with a steady stream of antioxidants via powerful foods, drinks, and supplements. You’ll stay younger, stronger, healthier, and more resistant to disease. The following list breaks down the different classifications of antioxidants, as well as the best sources of each antioxidant class, available through diet and supplementation.
The Antioxidant Vitamins
- Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, avocados, olive/safflower/sunflower oils, wheat germ, liver, leafy green vegetables
- Vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid): citrus fruits, emergen-c, green peppers, broccoli, leafy green vegetables, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, potatoes
- Vitamin A, Beta-Carotene and carotenoids: orange/green/yellow vegetables and fruits such as squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, mango, papaya, pumpkin, green leafy vegetables.
- Selenium: seafood, red meat, pork, chicken, wheat bread, eggs, chicken, garlic
Other Antioxidants and Phytochemicals
- Flavonoids / polyphenols (such as anthocyanins, resveratrol, quercitin, and catechins): red wine, purple grapes, blueberries, cranberries, pomegranate, cranberries, tea.
- Lycopene: Tomato and tomato products (ketchup!), pink grapefruit, watermelon
- Lutein: dark green leafy vegetables
- Lignan: flax seed and other seeds, oatmeal
- Phytic Acid: Whole grains, beans
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Comes in supplement/pill form
What are THE BEST Sources of Antioxidants?
Even though charts 2 & 3 are straight from the POM Wonderful website, which skews the data to favor POM, they still paint a good, relative picture of where different drinks fall on the antioxidant spectrum. Not shockingly, red wine, pomegranate, acai, cranberry, and blueberry juice are all antioxidant powerhouses. The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry measured the antioxidant content of over 100 foods, the 20 best antioxidant foods ranked as follows:
Blueberries, cranberries, green tea, red wine, acai, and dark chocolate are synonymous with HUGE antioxidant content, but in reality beans, potatoes, pecans, artichokes and others rank in the antioxidant elite. As a rule of thumb, natural fruit, veggies, and grains are typically antioxidant-rich. Overall, the best sources of antioxidants include:
- Red Wine and red grapes
- Green Tea and other teas
- Different types of berries: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, etc.
- Spinach, kale, brussel sprouts
- Cocoa and dark chocolate
- Flax seeds and other types of seeds
- Whole grains
- A variety of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, oregano, and turmeric
Interestingly, spices are UBER POTENT antioxidants when compared to whole foods (even higher than blueberries, acai, or red wine). Antioxidant content in foods is traditionally measured by ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity)–the gold standard measurement as far as antioxidants go. Here are the ORAC scores for a few common spices and foods:
Acai and cocoa rank in the upper echelon, but that’s as far as food and drinks go. Over 90% of the top antioxidant sources are herbs and spices!
Maximize antioxidants in your diet with fruits and veggies, spices, grains, beans, green tea, and even a glass of wine from time to time. There’s absolutely no reason to break the bank on expensive antioxidant supplements or pills–follow a natural diet, tweaked slightlyto amp up antioxidant content, and your body will be more than prepared to fight free radicals head on. Grab a handful of berries as a snack with Greek yogurt, sip a cup of green tea or coffee in the morning before work, or mix blueberries and cinnamon into a big bowl of oatmeal. The possibilities are endless, get creative with it!
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ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto.
I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP
, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid
, and all-around fitness junkie.
I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine
When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses
and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.
Come be friends with me on Snapchat (BRYDISANTO)
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