Antioxidants are one of today’s most popular nutrient groups. Many health books and articles have been written extolling their virtues. Capitalizing on this popularity, food producers tend to prominently advertise the antioxidant content of the beverages, cereals, teas and other items they offer, often directly supplementing their products with antioxidants to increase nutrient content. As with vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes, the presence of antioxidants is a persuasive signifier of a given supplement or food’s health benefits. However, to really benefit from antioxidants, we must understand why and in what context they are valuable. Simply consuming more foods that are advertised as containing them (e.g. green tea, chocolate, and red wine) is too simplistic, and can have negative consequences for health.
In order to comprehend antioxidants, we first have to discuss their counterparts, free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that our bodies generate in order to neutralize toxins as well as pathogens such as bad bacteria, viruses and fungi. Due to reacting with oxygen in a process known as oxidation, free radical molecules lack the electrons they need to be chemically stable. The way they neutralize is by stealing an electron from another molecule, which then itself becomes a free radical. Our bodies use free radicals to start a chain reaction of molecule destruction among whatever toxin or pathogen has invaded our system. Free radicals are also created by our bodies when we’re stressed out, physically injured, or when we exercise.
It’s clear that free radicals play an important role in our immunity. However, if we have too many free radicals active in our systems, they will begin turning on the body’s own cells, damaging those cells’ DNA and turning their molecules into additional free radicals. This process of cell breakdown, continuing unchecked, is linked to the development of cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, liver damage, premature aging, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, unchecked free radical proliferation may be the most ubiquitous health problem of our time.
Excessive free radical activity can be caused by too-frequent stress, infection, or exposure to toxins (toxins include cigarette smoke, polluted air and industrial pollutants, pesticides and herbicides, certain prescription drugs, and radiation), or by too-frequent consumption of rancid vegetable oils, which contain high amounts of free radicals due to their oxidization during high-heat cooking, processing, and lengthy exposure to light. If we’re facing any of these problems, how are we supposed to neutralize the free radicals? Enter antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules that are capable of “donating” electrons to free radicals to stabilize them, while remaining stable themselves. Our bodies manufacture some antioxidants, just as they manufacture free radicals. However, a major part of our antioxidant need is supplied by dietary nutrients. Examples of antioxidants are vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B9, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and a class of nutrients called polyphenols (which contain another class known as bioflavnoids).
It’s easy to see why antioxidants are touted as being so important. Who would not want to add to their diet nutrients that reduce the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, and the other diseases listed above? But rather than fall into the misconception that all we need to do to protect ourselves is eat more foods that are advertised as containing antioxidants, we need to take a holistic approach to the situation. We need a healthy amount of both free radicals and antioxidants. It may be that production of free radicals needs to be reduced, rather than antioxidants increased, as excessive antioxidant intake can cause problems of its own. Also, we should get our antioxidants from whole, natural foods, rather than from either 1. antioxidant supplements, 2. processed foods to which antioxidants have been added, or 3. foods that naturally contain them but also contain potentially harmful ingredients. I recommend that the following strategy should be used for developing a healthy balance between free radical and antioxidant levels:
1. Reduce stress. If you are under continual stress, antioxidants can help somewhat, but the best thing you can do for your health is to actually resolve the stress in whatever way is right and appropriate. There is no way that diet alone can compensate for the damage to health done by ongoing mental and emotional stress.
2. Reduce exposure to the environmental toxins listed above. One way to do this is by increasing consumption of organic food vs. conventional, and exchanging the conventional cleaning and self care products in your home for those with natural ingredients. Quitting smoking and cutting back on prescription drugs where appropriate will also help.
3. Avoid consumption of rancid vegetable oils (e.g. fried foods from fast food restaurants). When purchasing vegetable oil for home cooking, choose olive, sesame, sunflower or corn oil that is cold-pressed and contained in dark glass bottles. Use coconut oil or lard from naturally raised pigs for high-heat cooking.
4. Eat more of the following whole, natural foods that contain antioxidants: all vegetables, but especially leafy green vegetables; all fruits, especially berries; vegetable oils processed in the healthy way described above; dairy products from grass-fed cows; organic eggs; beans; whole grains; all herbs and spices, but especially turmeric, oregano and cinnamon
5. Moderate your intake of foods that contain antioxidants, but which can actually reduce mineral absorption when consumed in excess: green tea, chocolate, red wine, spinach, swiss chard, and soybeans (unless cooked with kombu, a sea vegetable).
Ultimately, the point is that we should not reflexively think “I need that, it has antioxidants,” but focus on eating a diet of whole natural foods, balancing that diet based on our cravings, and reducing stress and exposure to toxins and rancid oils. If we take that approach, our freeradical/antioxidant balance can be trusted to take care of itself, and we’ll have greatly reduced our risk for the diseases mentioned earlier. This is a holistic approach, one that accounts for both the nutrients we know and those we have not yet discovered. It can be relied upon regardless of what dietary trend is popular at the moment, and will not lead us down the path of eating in an unbalanced way even as we’re trying to get healthier.