We've all heard of antioxidants, these mysterious little molecular helpers that sound like the elusive fountain of youth we've all been looking for. Antioxidants are molecules that block or inhibit the oxidation process, which is thought to be at least partly responsible for many illnesses associated with aging such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. In the oxidation process, free radicals are released which start chain reactions that damage cells - antioxidants help to slow or prevent that process.
In the watered down version that we see in commercials touting antioxidant enriched skin treatments and telling us we have to eat foods full of antioxidants to be healthy, we're basically only told that the antioxidants are good and free radicals are bad. But is it really that cut and dry? In a recent article on msnbc.today.com, several physicians and researchers share the real truth about antioxidants.
- Free radicals aren't all evil
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells, even going so far as causing DNA mutation. The free radicals themselves are merely by-products of the metabolic oxidation process and are an essential part of our bodies. The good cells aren't the only ones attacked by free radicals - they are used to fight bacteria as well. Too many free radicals can be harmful though, and it matters where they come from. Smoking and exposure to pollutants can overwhelm the body's antioxidant defenses, and leave your cells open to attack.
- Each antioxidant has it's own job
It's estimated that there are about 8,000 different kinds of antioxidants. Many people are familiar with vitamins like C and E, but most of us have never heard of other antioxidants such as flavonoids and polyphenols. They do not all serve the same purpose, different antioxidants fight different free radicals so even if you take a ton of vitamin C, it can never make up for avoiding vitamin E.
- Antioxidants are found throughout the plant kingdom
All plants produce antioxidants to fight against harmful UV rays, and predators. Though these plants carry different antioxidants in different concentrations, they are always there. When choosing foods for their antioxidant values, it's best to stay away from refined grains, as they've been stripped of most of their antioxidant benefits. Some meats and dairy products carry antioxidants as well, but you'll find the highest concentrations in grass-fed animals.
- Antioxidant-fortified doesn't mean healthier
It's critical to have a wide variety of antioxidants for them to really be successful. As we said, each type of antioxidant has a different function, the more functions you cover, the more protected you are. Many processed foods that say "Antioxidant Enriched" are really only enriched with one type, so you won't get the same variety as you would buying several different fresh foods. Buy several different types of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes for the greatest level of variety, and protection..
- Exercise and supplements are not a guarantee of fitness
If you workout and then take a dose of antioxidants, it may interfere with the body's natural processes. In a 2009 German study, when exercisers took antioxidant supplements (vitamins C and E), they weren't rewarded with the typical postexercise boost in insulin sensitivity. It's best to get your antioxidants from whole foods and not pills or enriched, pre-packaged foods to see the best result.
The basic rule of thumb for getting the most from antioxidants is to eat as many different fresh foods as you can - and not just fruits and veggies, include nuts and grains as well. If you make eating whole foods a part of your day, you should have no need to add antioxidant-enriched packaged foods.