Completely radical: why antioxidants


If you ask your antioxidant-devoted friend to describe what an antioxidant is, chances are she”ll be stumped. A recent survey found that while 75 percent of us say we attempt to eat antioxidant-rich foods, 91 percent of us can”t identify what those are. So whether you”re part of the under-informed masses or simply keen to add to your already above-average antioxidant knowledge, here is your berry-full, free-radical-fighting antioxidant cheat sheet.

Dangers of Free Radicals

To understand antioxidants, you first have to understand what they fight: free radicals. Free radicals are molecules created in your body by oxidation that occurs when your food is turned into energy. They are also in foods we eat and air we breathe, and they can be created by the sun”s interaction with our eyes and skin. There are many different kinds of free radicals, but what they all share is an appetite for electrons. To feed this, they steal electrons from nearby substances. This can change the DNA structures in those substances. These changes have been blamed for aging effects and increased risks of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, among other chronic diseases.

Antioxidant Benefits

Antioxidants are molecules that have been shown to counteract the effects of free radicals in lab studies with cells and animals. They do this by giving away electrons to free radicals without taking any from anywhere else. Just like there are different kinds of free radicals, there are many different antioxidants — you may know vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene — each with its own effects. Some substances are also antioxidants in some situations but pro-oxidants (electron stealers) in others.

Antioxidant Supplement Risks

While antioxidants in your diet seem to provide some benefits — like lowered risks of cardiovascular disease, cataracts, stroke, and cancer — single antioxidant supplements don”t offer the same advantages. Moreover, the safety of high-dose antioxidant supplements is in question. A study of high-dose beta-carotene supplement use by smokers was actually halted due to evidence that it significantly increased the incidence of lung cancer. Use of high-dose vitamin E supplements has also been linked to increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke and prostate cancer. Lastly, some studies have suggested that antioxidant supplementation hinders natural antioxidant production and exercise-induced insulin sensitivity.

Antioxidants in Food

Thus, the best way to get your antioxidants is through foods that are antioxidant-rich, such as blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and pomegranates. As an added benefit, many of these foods are high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and a good source of other vitamins and minerals.