Antioxidants are very much at the forefront of modern nutrition. Recent years in particular have seen increasing discussion about their effects, potential benefits, and the role they can play in our daily nutrition.
The question is; has the rise of antioxidants gained momentum so quickly that many of us are generally aware of them without really knowing the details – and why have they become such a hot topic?
A good way to start is to take a look at what antioxidants are, and what they help protect us from – oxidative stress.
What is Oxidative Stress?
Oxygen interacts with all cells in nature, whether on the inside or outside of any organism. The simplest example is a sliced apple – the flesh of the apple is exposed and begins to react with the oxygen in the air, turning it brown. This process is what’s known as oxidation – it’s in fact the same thing that causes a car to rust!
Oxidation is a completely natural – and essential process. If you have a cut on your skin, oxidation causes the dead cells to change and be replaced by new cells, so the cut gradually heals.
When you hear the term oxidative stress being used this means there’s an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract their harmful effects.
Different kinds of antioxidants
Antioxidants are types of nutrients and enzymes that can help promote health and may play a role in reducing your risk of chronic illnesses. They do this by combatting the free radicals produced as a result of oxidation.
Not all forms of antioxidants are the same. In fact, there are different types. Antioxidants can be soluble (i.e. they dissolve) in either water or in fat. Both types of antioxidants are important, as they can both be attacked by free radicals.
Water soluble antioxidants include vitamin C and polyphenols (antioxidants specifically from plants), whereas fat soluble antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin E, carotenoids and lipoic acid.
Can Oxidative Stress be prevented?
Some of the effects of oxidative stress can be counteracted. Your body is unlikely to produce enough antioxidants to fight all the free radicals, so you can do your bit to support it. Trying to avoid some of the causes of free radicals may be beneficial, as well as eating a healthy diet containing lots of foods that naturally contain antioxidants.
It’s worth remembering that we’re often surrounded by lots of environmental factors that expose us to free radicals, such as air pollution, tobacco smoke, toxins – and getting overtired or stressed at work or home can reduce your body’s ability to combat oxidative stress. It’s impossible to screen all of them out of your life, but just by being a little mindful, you can reduce the impacts of these factors, day to day.
Sources of Antioxidants
One of the easiest ways of getting more antioxidants is to do so through eating a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet. Especially one that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables of varying colours.
A variety of fresh foods are rich in antioxidants. Some examples to consider adding to your diet include:
- Tomatoes – which are rich in lycopene (this gives them their red colour).
- Carrots – rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene (which gives carrots their distinctive orange pigment).
- Broccoli, leeks, eggs, strawberries and sunflower seeds – which are all rich in vitamin A.
- Apples, blueberries, peppers, watercress, bananas, raspberries and spinach – which are good sources of vitamin C.
- Almonds, blackberries, wholegrain cereal, mackerel, cabbage and walnuts – which are good sources of vitamin E.
- Watermelon – which is also a good source of lycopene.
- Citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit. Between them they contain healthy phytochemicals such as carotenoids, limonoids and terpenes.
- Brazil nuts, shellfish, green vegetables, liver and wholegrains – as these are known to be useful sources of selenium.
Your choice of drinks is relevant too. Green tea is better than black tea, as it contains an antioxidant called catechin – this is why green tea is often promoted as a healthy beverage to enjoy. Red wine is also associated with antioxidant properties, although ideally one glass now and then – not necessarily a whole bottle!
As well as being great sources of antioxidants, many of these foods are good components of an overall healthy diet, so you could stand to gain more than just a boost in antioxidants.
Some studies have indicated that people who eat healthier diets including plenty of fruits and vegetables may have a reduced risk of developing serious illnesses, such as heart disease or stroke. A good level of antioxidants has also been associated with anti-ageing. There’s more to antioxidants than many perhaps realise!