Spring has officially begun, and with it comes all the seasonal produce filled with antioxidants! I’m sure we’ve all heard the term antioxidants thrown around in a positive light, but do we know what they actually are? In this post, we will explore what antioxidants are, where you can find them in food, and common misconceptions surrounding antioxidants.
How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants are compounds rather than nutrients, which can be confusing when discussing nutrition! They are compounds found in foods that reduce inflammation and can have a protective effect on the body. They can reduce the risk of many diseases by preventing damage by free radicals.
What are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are molecules with one or more unpaired electrons; this makes them especially reactive & strongly want to connect to other molecules. This can create problems if we have too many free radicals and not enough free molecules for them to attach to. They begin to cause damage to cells from other places in our body, increasing inflammation and making the bodywork harder to repair itself. This is where antioxidants come in. They can attach to free radicals and prevent the damage they would otherwise cause.
It’s important to remember there is no reason to fear free radicals (especially when they are balanced with antioxidants!) - they’re a normal outcome of breaking down foods through metabolism. Free radicals are also produced by the body when fighting an infection or healing from an injury. This type of oxidative stress temporarily increases inflammation & free radicals, decreasing once the fight is won. Free radical-generating substances can accelerate the damaging effects, these include alcohol, fried foods, tobacco smoke, ultraviolet radiation, etc. A buildup of free radicals is linked to a higher risk of many chronic diseases and signs of aging.
Types of Antioxidants
Antioxidants are interesting because it represents an umbrella term for various nutrients that play that protective role we discussed earlier. Some examples of antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, and phenols. So many more nutrients can also bind to free radicals, but these are some of the most common.
It’s important to note that antioxidants work best when paired together. Many foods are packaged this way. For example, spinach has both vitamin C and beta-carotene. Supplementation has been found to not be nearly as effective as eating whole foods. A good way to remember this is that food is created in ways our bodies use best. Antioxidants in food are no exception!
What Foods Have Antioxidants?
There are many foods year round packed with antioxidants, but here are a few spring-specific options!
Compared to focusing on one food group or taking extra supplements for antioxidants, having a variety of whole foods of all colors will be the best way to provide your body with the antioxidants it needs.
Antioxidants, just like any other food trend that gets some wind in the public eye, come with plenty of misconceptions. Let’s address some!
Myth: Antioxidants prevent cancer and diseases.
Fact: Unfortunately, there is no known way to ensure protection from all diseases. A diet rich in antioxidants may reduce your risk of developing certain cancers and diseases due to reduced free radical damage over time.
Myth: I need to supplement antioxidants to increase the benefits.
Fact: The best method of consuming antioxidants has been shown to be from whole fruits and vegetables and other foods such as nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Taking antioxidant supplements has not been shown to have the same effect. The need for supplementation varies greatly depending on the individual, contact your Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to discuss if/what supplements might be best for you.
Antioxidants are just one piece of the puzzle that is nutrition. There can be so much confusing and conflicting information in the media. It’s important to remember that every body is different, and nutrition should be personalized to you! Because knowing how to navigate your nutrition goals can be tough, let those at Sound Dietitians help you out. Set up an appointment today with one of our dedicated dietitians for individualized nutritional therapy. We look forward to seeing you soon!
Makayla Rapp, Dietetic Intern
A place for our consultant Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) to share nutrition science, yummy and healthy recipes, tips on seasonal ingredients, and other nutritional musings. Enjoy!