All About Antioxidants
It’s January once again, and that means people are putting away the holiday cookies and thinking hard about healthier eating. Whether that means going all-in on a restrictive diet or just trying to eat something green every day, there’s one area we can probably all agree on: getting more antioxidants is definitely a good thing…right? Well, the truth is actually a little bit more complicated. While eating antioxidant-rich foods is undeniably a healthy choice, high-dosage antioxidant supplements might actually do more harm than good. Today, we’ll get to the bottom of all things antioxidants – so you can kick off your year of healthy eating with all the information.
What are antioxidants?
Before we start, let’s make sure we all know what we’re talking about. To understand antioxidants, you first need to understand oxidative stress. Think about what happens to an apple cut in half – the flesh turns brown when exposed to air. This is what happens when the cells in the apple are exposed to oxygen. And the same process happens in our bodies as we age. Those brown age spots on the back of your hands? They were created by the same process as that apple browning. And if you look a little deeper, oxidative stress can cause our internal organs to lose function over time.
How does it happen? Oxidative stress occurs thanks to harmful molecules called free radicals. These unstable particles are created through normal processes in the body, such as digestion and exercise. But they are intensified through outside factors such as smoking, sunlight and air pollution. And when free radicals trigger oxidative stress in your body, they can lead to anything from visible signs of aging to heart disease and cancer.
So what can we do to prevent free radicals from doing so much damage? Enter antioxidants, a class of substances that help kick free radicals to the curb. Antioxidants can be found in vitamins (such as C and E), minerals (such as selenium) and flavonoids. What do all these sources have in common? They almost all come from plants. So if you’re eating a diet high in fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains and vegetable oils, you’re probably already getting a great dose of antioxidants with every meal.
How can you tell if a fruit or veggie is high in antioxidants? Here’s one trick… Remember that browning apple from before? It changed colour when exposed to air because apple flesh is low in antioxidants. Bananas? Ditto. Slice a mango or some berries, however, and you won’t see any browning – a great indication that these fruits are high in antioxidants. Just think about how you use lemon juice (which is high in the antioxidant vitamin C) to stop cut fruits from browning. Antioxidants in action, baby.
To get the antioxidants you need, your best bet is to aim for 7 to 10 servings of produce per day. Aside from keeping free radicals at bay, this diet will also make sure you’re getting all the fibre, vitamins and minerals you need. Smoker? Try to squeeze in an extra serving or two to help offset your extra free radicals. To get the most out of your produce, eat it as fresh as you can, and cook veggies in as little water as possible so the vitamins don’t leach out. For roasting and frying, choose a vegetable oil high in vitamin E, such as sunflower seed, safflower, grapeseed, canola or olive oil.
Of course, you need to vary your diet to get the full range of antioxidant benefits. Just eating 10 servings of fresh berries (or even kale) won’t cut it. Try to eat a range of fruits and veggies in a wide array of colours. For vitamin C, pick up some oranges, berries, bell peppers and tomatoes; for vitamin E, stock up on vegetable oils, nuts, sweet potatoes and (of course) avocados. Then, make sure you’re meeting your selenium intake with whole grains, beans and eggs. Finally, get covered on carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) with carrots, broccoli and dark leafy greens.
What about supplements?
The logic seems easy…if it’s good to get some antioxidants from fresh produce, isn’t it better to get a LOT of antioxidants through supplements? The research says no. One study of over 100,000 people found that antioxidant supplements did not lower the risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Worse still, high-dose antioxidant supplements might actually increase your health risks in some cases, such as lung disease in smokers.
Why? The jury is still out. Maybe our bodies react differently to different doses of antioxidants. Maybe a super high dose just overwhelms our systems. Or maybe the other health benefits of fresh produce help food-based antioxidants do their thing. Whatever the reason, the takeaway is clear: it’s much better to get the antioxidants you need from a healthy diet. And if you do want to try supplements anyways, definitely talk to a doctor first.
So, feeling inspired to start eating healthier? Getting 7-10 servings of produce per day might sound daunting, but it’s easier than you think. It’s as simple as sprinkling berries into your morning cereal or oatmeal. Asking for a side salad instead of French fries. Snacking on a piece of fruit instead of cheese and crackers. These small daily decisions can make a big impact in your overall health. Just take it one step at a time and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Before you know it, you’ll be knocking that healthy eating resolution out of the park!
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