JBK Nutrition Notes: Antioxidants

Antioxidant. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot on food labels and in health headlines. But what does an antioxidant really do, and why do we want them in our bodies? 

Antioxidants fight free radicals

Antioxidants fight free radicals, which are unstable molecules in the body. I promise I won’t get too into the weeds, so just hang in here a minute. Free radicals are considered unstable because structurally, they have an unpaired electron. The free radical wants to be balanced, so it tries to steal an electron from another molecule in the cells and tissues in our body. The molecule that is stolen from is now unbalanced and so it becomes a free radical with the same quest to be balanced. This chain-reaction process is called oxidation, and it’s how cells in the body can quickly become damaged and lead to disease. You can see oxidation happen in certain foods, like when a cut apple sits out and turns increasingly brown over time.

What kind of disease?

Oxidative damage underlies a huge range of diseases as it can impact the health of every cell in the body. It has been tied to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and numerous autoimmune diseases. This is also often referred to as expediting the aging process!

Where do free radicals come from?

Your diet, environment, and lifestyle can impact the amount of free radicals into your body:

  • Food – yes, the food you eat can introduce free radicals into the body. The primary sources are rancid fats in the form of industrial vegetable oils (canola, soybean, peanut, and safflower oils) which are high in delicate omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. 
    • Because of their delicate structure, these fats are very susceptible to damage from heat and light. And since heat and light are used in the production of these very oils, many of them are damaged before they are ever even purchased, and then they become further oxidized when they are heated during the cooking process. This is why we only use coconut and olive oils in our cooking and dressings at JBK!
  • Lifestyle 
    • Smoking – cigarette smoking generates large amounts of free radicals in the body and the secondhand smoke from cigarettes is also damaging 
    • Stress – the chronic psychological stress that so many of us struggle with can cause oxidative damage through sustained activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central command center for stress.
  • Environment – our bodies absorb toxins from pollution, pesticides, heavy metals chemicals in cleaning and personal care products, and plastics. These substances all place a burden on our body and introduce free radicals in the body that must be neutralized by antioxidants.

Aim for balance

While we’ll always have some free radicals in the body (some can actually help the body defend itself against infections and invaders), having too many can have damaging effects on other molecules and tissues in the body. What we want to achieve is a good balance of antioxidants and free radicals to manage any oxidative stress and help prevent oxidative damage disease.

Eat the rainbow

You’ll see antioxidant supplements for sale and labels on products, but the bottom line is that real, whole, colorful foods are the best sources of antioxidants. Think fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. The following nutrients are known to have high antioxidant content:

  • Vitamin C: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, grapefruit, leafy greens, kale, kiwi, lemon, orange, papaya, strawberries, sweet potato, tomatoes, and bell peppers 
  • Vitamin E: Almonds, avocado, Swiss chard, leafy greens, peanuts, red peppers, and sunflower seeds
  • Carotenoids: Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, bell peppers, kale, mangos, turnip and collard greens, oranges, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, winter squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, beef, poultry
  • Zinc: Beef, poultry, oysters, shrimp, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lentils, cashews
  • Phenolic compounds: Quercetin (apples, red wine, onions), catechins (tea, cocoa, berries), resveratrol (red and white wine, grapes, peanuts, berries), coumaric acid (spices, berries), anthocyanins (blueberries, strawberries)

Move and meditate

You can also improve your balance of antioxidants to free radicals by practicing regular movement and meditation. While exercise will increase production of free radicals immediately during and after a workout, it will increase antioxidant production over the long term. Meditation and mindfulness practices will help manage physiological stress and reduce oxidative stress.

Help your body help you

Your body is well-designed to keep itself running smoothly, but to do that, it needs your help. Do what you can to avoid diet and lifestyle factors that can increase free radicals within the body, and help your body support its natural processes by providing it with the fuel it was intended to consume: real, fresh, whole foods!