Everyday we hear the term “antioxidant”. But what does that really mean and how does it affect us in the pursuit of our fitness goals? We all want to look, feel, and perform our best and also be healthy. How can antioxidants help us and what do they really do? Imagine if you were walking to your car and a stranger approached demanding your purse. From out of nowhere, Clint Eastwood walks up and with a squinted glare gives the would-be robber his gold watch to go away and leave you alone. Then Clint walks you to your car and watches you drive away safely. That’s exactly what antioxidants do, they protect you from harm.
Our bodies are constantly being attacked by highly reactive molecules known as free radicals (the would-be robber in our little story). When oxygen molecules within our body break down they lose one of their electrons. These broken down molecules then seek to replace their lost electrons by binding with and stealing electrons from healthy cells, damaging those cells and creating more free radicals in the process. This cellular breakdown or damage has been linked to the acceleration or cause of numerous diseases including cancer, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, cataracts, Parkinson’s disease, and others. What antioxidants do is bind with these free radicals by donating one of their electrons (just like Clint giving up his watch) thereby protecting you from further assault. Since free radicals are created in the body from normal metabolic processes (like converting food to energy) as well as environmental factors (like sunlight, pollutants, and even exercise) our bodies are under constant assault.
Where Are They:
If Clint really was an antioxidant, he would have to give up his movie career as protecting you would be his full-time job! Fortunately, the great thing about antioxidants is that they are easy to obtain and highly available. They can be found in numerous foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and even some meats, fish and poultry. They can even be produced by the body as enzymes. Vitamin C is the main water-soluble antioxidant and Vitamin E is the primary fat-soluble antioxidant. And there are many substances that, while not “antioxidants” by definition, have “antioxidant properties” in terms of what they do, halt the activity of free radicals.
Many of our favorite “fitness foods” are great sources of antioxidants. It is often the most brightly colored fruits and vegetables (natures way of getting our attention?) that are the best things for us; Broccoli, carrots, mangoes, squash, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, collards, kale and other leafy greens, sweet potatoes, onions, black, kidney and other beans, sunflower seeds, walnuts, cashews, almonds and other nuts, oranges, lemons, limes, mangoes, pink grapefruit, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, acai berries, cherries and other berries, raisins, red grapes, apples, watermelon, peaches, nectarines, green, black and other teas, red wine, fish and shellfish, flax seeds, oatmeal, whole grain breads and vegetable oil, are all rich in antioxidants!
Try to include a wide variety of these food items in your diet (2-3 times daily) as combining multiple antioxidants sources is considered to be the most effective way to utilize them. If you find yourself being limited in what you are able to consume then using supplement sources of antioxidants in addition to your food choices is a practice pursued by many who seek optimal health. Vitamin A, beta-carotene (and other carotenoids), Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, Lycopene, Lutein, Coenzyme Q10, Zinc, manganese, Glutathione, lipoic acid and others are all significant antioxidants or co-factors. Although these can easily be taken in supplement form, it is generally believed best to ingest them primarily in their naturally occurring state as available in whole foods.
Research has also shown that topically applied antioxidants (in addition to sunscreen and avoiding excessive sun exposure) can add to the natural defense capabilities of the skin’s pigment cells in combating free radical damage. Skin care products containing Vitamins A, C, and E can potentially be good for your health.
Antioxidants are a key class of nutrients for everyone. Regularly consuming an adequate amount will help protect our bodies from the cellular wear and tear of free radical damage that constantly threatens us. Looking and feeling great all stem from a base of good health. Nutritional support from antioxidants can be a significant part of making optimal health a reality.