Mini nutrition lesson: antioxidants

Antioxidants are being talked up more & more these days and for good reason. Antioxidants, found mostly in fruits and vegetables, are important in our diet to help prevent cell damage & diseases. They prohibit or prevent the oxidation of molecules in our body including free radicals.

Free radicals can be formed by overexposure to alcohol, tobacco smoke, fried foods, air pollutants, and pesticides. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd number of electrons (aka unpaired). They’re formed when oxygen interacts with another molecule and are highly reactive. Once they get going, they form a chain reaction. They cause cell death which is dangerous when they interact with DNA or cell membranes.

This chain reaction can be prevented by consuming enough antioxidants in your diet. Antioxidants interact with free radicals and shut them down before they can damage any vital molecules. The main antioxidant micronutrients are Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A).

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin found in nuts, seeds, oils, and whole grains.

Vitamin C is water-soluble and is present in citrus fruits/juices, broccoli, spinach, green peppers, kale, strawberries, and kiwi.

Beta-carotene (Vitamin A) is also fat-soluble and is found in egg yolk, dairy, spinach, squash, carrots, broccoli, peaches, and whole grains.

Studies are being conducted on the link between antioxidants and the prevention of cancer, heart disease, and aging. The studies haven’t been done long enough to be conclusive yet, but there is a great deal of evidence showing that eating fruits/veggies & living an overall healthy lifestyle is very beneficial in preventing these. The scientific evidence will come with time!

Endurance exercise (such as running, swimming, biking, etc.) increases the body’s oxygen utilization 10-20x above the resting state. Although exercise is very beneficial and should be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, this oxygen increase also increases free radicals. This can increase damage to muscles and other tissues.

But good news! The human body is very adaptable and enhances the antioxidant defense system with regular physical exercise over time. So when you first start working out (or switch up your workouts) it can feel very taxing on the body. But once your body adjusts to the increased oxygen usage and increased free radicals, it learns how to defend against it. Increasing the antioxidants you get in your diet is still important, especially if you work out regularly, to help with muscle repair and growth.

So all in all, balance is important when it comes to antioxidants. Start a balanced fitness regimen (aka don’t just work out intensely for a couple days, take 5 days off, then repeat). You don’t need to work out every day or even 5x a week to be healthy. Exercise when exercise feels good and is a de-stressor as opposed to feeling like you have to. Try and eat 5 servings of fruits/veggies most days. Don’t worry about supplementing if you’re eating nutrient-dense foods in your diet often. These lifestyle factors will be beneficial in increasing antioxidant consumption as well as many other areas of your health!