What are antioxidants, why are they important, and where do we find them?
1. What are antioxidants?
Free radicals are molecules that are missing electrons. When free radicals come into contact with your body's cell they can steal electrons resulting in cellular damage. Antioxidants are molecules that will donate their electrons to free radicals, thereby minimizing cellular damage.
2. Why are antioxidants important? Electrons like to travel in pairs and when an electron is lost a free radical is created. This is bad because it is believed that “free radicals may play a part in cancer, heart disease, stroke and other diseases.” ("Dictionary of Cancer Terms," n.d.). Free radicals want a buddy and will go around looking for electrons to steal. As noted above they are not picky and will take electrons from your body's cells causing damage. This is where antioxidants come in. They will gladly donate one of their electrons to the free radical to make it happy so it won't need to go around stealing your cells electrons. What's great is that antioxidants are able to donate electrons while staying stable themselves. If you are wondering where free radicals come from, they can be created from smoke, pollution, chemicals but also from the natural process of digesting food and breathing oxygen. It has been found that antioxidants from berries (among other foods) called anthocyanins may prevent multiple chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and age-related neurodegenerative decline (Carey et al., 2013). Flavonoids, which also act as antioxidants and are found in high levels in onions, have been shown to exert potential anti-cancer activities (Hayward et al., 2017). In studies it has been shown there is a correlation between high intakes of flavonoids and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus (Cassidy, 2012).
3. Where can we find antioxidants?
Although antioxidants can be sold in a pill, these supplemental forms have been found to have health risks. The good news is that antioxidants from food have no safety concerns associated with them (Plumbo, 2013) and are found in foods like red cabbage, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and even apples. Antioxidants include things like Beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamins like A, C, E and anthocyanins to name a few. Carrots have Beta-carotene, tomatoes have lycopene, pineapple has vitamin C, spinach has vitamin E and pomegranates have anthocyanins. A good way to make sure you are getting a variety of antioxidants is to eat the color of the rainbow in fruits and vegetables. "Colorful foods are often healthier because they contain antioxidant pigments . . .The colors are the antioxidants" (Greger, 2015, p.289). However, don't let that stop you from eating light colored vegetables and fruit. Cauliflower has sulforaphane, a promising anticancer agent, and mushrooms have ergothioneine, an amino acid that acts like an antioxidant and protects your cells. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, variety is key!
It seems pretty clear that the antioxidant's ability to minimize the destruction free radicals can do to your cells have multiple health benefits by fighting multiple disease processes, therefore a diet rich in antioxidants is recommended.
Antioxidant. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Arnarson, A. Antioxidants Explained in Human Terms. (2017, June 15). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/antioxidants-explained#section2
Carey, E., Chen, T., Griffin, J., Herndon, B., Katz, B., Kim, J., Lim, S., . . . & Xu, J. Role of Anthocyanin-enriched Purple-fleshed Sweet Potato P40 in Colorectal Cancer Prevention. (2013, June 19). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3980565/
Cassidy, A., Wedick, N, M., Pan, A., Rimm, E, B,. Sampson, L., Rosner, B., . . .& M van Dam, R. Dietary flavonoid intakes and risk of type 2 diabetes in US men and women. (2012, February 12). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3302366/
Greger, M. (2015). How Not To Die. New York, N.Y: Flatiron Books.
Hayward, G., Manohar, C., Murayyan, A., & Neethirajan, S. Antiproliferative activity of Ontario grown onions against colorectal adenocarcinoma cells. (2017, March 11). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0963996917301060?via=ihub citation
NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/antioxidant
Plumbo, G. A Grocery Bag of Beneficial Antioxidants. (2013, November 25). Retrieved from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/a-grocery-bag-of-beneficial-antioxidants/
The Digestible; a site for easy to understand food, nutrition, health, and energy balance information.