It’s a word we hear a lot, but what actually are antioxidants? And why are they so important for our health?  Antioxidants are a vital part of your diet, here’s why…

 

WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS?

 

Before we get into antioxidants and their benefits, we first need to understand free radicals. These are molecules with one or more unpaired electrons in their outer shell (remember your chemistry teacher drawing these on the blackboard at school?). In order to replace the missing electron(s) they rob cells of their electrons, resulting in damage to these cells. This process is understood to contribute to many diseases. One scientific theory of ageing, known as the ‘free radical theory of ageing’ proposes that ageing is the cumulative result of oxidative damage to the cells and tissues of the body caused by free radicals. In short, while they are naturally occurring and unavoidable, it’s important to keep our free radical load in check.

 

HOW ARE THEY PRODUCED?

 
The body naturally produces free radicals when it converts food to usable energy, in the same way that cars produce Co2 when turning petrol into energy. This is an essential metabolic process but there can be external contributors, too. Free radicals are created through smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fried foods and the ingestion of certain medications, pesticides and polluted air. Therefore it’s important to minimise our exposure to these free radical generators and to understand how we can to combat their effects.

 

WHAT ARE ANTIOXIDANTS?

 
The good news is that we can take action to protect ourselves from the effects of free radical damage. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are a type of molecule that can neutralise free radicals by donating an electron to stabilise the free radical molecule and preventing the harm they cause. They include vitamins C and E, minerals zinc and selenium and plant compounds such as proanthocyanidins in cranberries, blueberries and plumbs, catechins in green tea and lycopene in tomatoes.

 

WHY ARE ANTIOXIDANTS IMPORTANT IF YOU EXERCISE?

 
We all generate free radicals as a result of producing energy, but if you exercise regularly you are likely to be generating more energy to fuel your workouts compared to less active individuals. More energy production = more free radicals, and therefore more potential damage to our cells. Whether or not you exercise regularly it’s important that we counteract the effects of free radicals by ensuring that we have a sufficient intake of antioxidants.

 

WHERE CAN I GET ANTIOXIDANTS FROM?

 
There are many dietary sources of antioxidants but unfortunately we typically don’t eat enough of them. Fruits and vegetables tend to be amongst the best sources of antioxidants. The compounds that give plant foods their colours are often also antioxidants. For example, beta carotone gives plant foods their yellow, orange or red colour and can be found in carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash and bell peppers. This is the reason for the ‘eat a rainbow of colours’ message, eating a wide variety of different coloured vegetables is a great way to up your intake. I advise my clients to aim for a minimum of three portions of veg or salad with lunch and three with dinner. Other sources include minimally processed dark chocolate, unroasted nuts and red wine.

 

CAN I TAKE A SUPPLEMENT?

 
A variety of antioxidant supplements are available on the market and their quality varies hugely. I always recommend taking a ‘food first’ approach to nutrition, but you might wish to consider a good quality antioxidant supplement if you feel you could benefit. Vitamin C is one of the most potent and well-researched antioxidants. Personally, I take YourZooki Liposomal Vitamin C daily.
 

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