Antioxidants: what they are and why they are important
Wondering what antioxidants are and why it's important to include them in your diet? Nutritionist Jon Hodgkinson explains all you need to know
What are antioxidants?
The term antioxidant is synonymous with health-foods and is one of the most common buzz words used within the nutrition community over the past few decades. When you see the term antioxidant being used, it is really referring to a chemical property that many foods have that can help prevent unstable atoms reacting with other chemicals.
This is important as these unstable atoms create reactions within the body, known as oxidation reactions, that are thought to play a key role in DNA and tissue damage linked to ageing and some degenerative diseases.
The unstable atoms referred to are known as ‘free-radicals’ as they act in an uncontrolled and reactive way.
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How do antioxidants work?
Antioxidants work by helping to re-stabilise free-radical atoms, making them less reactive. They do this by donating spare electrons to the free-radical atoms which allows the atoms to rebalance themselves. When free-radicals are brought back under control by antioxidants, they will no longer be able to react with other chemicals to cause oxidation reactions.
Antioxidants help to control the amount of oxidative damage that occurs in the body.
What are the best food sources of antioxidants?
The more commonly known nutrients that exhibit antioxidant properties are Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Betacarotene.
More antioxidant-rich foods are uncovered each year by research, so the list of foods could be almost endless, however if you’re looking for the best sources here are a few ideas…
- Berries are always a solid starting point, especially blueberries, blackberries, bilberries, blackcurrants, and goji berries
- Fruits such as dried apricots, dried cherries, pomegranate, black and green olives
- Pecan and walnuts are the best nut varieties to go for
- When it comes to chocolate, higher cocoa content tends to mean higher antioxidant content, aim for 70% and above here
- Sundried tomatoes, red cabbage and beetroot rank highly in the vegetable group
- For beverages, ground coffee beans are your best option
- But the pinnacle of antioxidant content comes from the herb and spice category with many dried herbs and spices containing 10x the antioxidant amounts of foods in other categories. Some of the best options are dried basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, allspice and cloves
Is it worth taking an antioxidant supplement?
The balance between your intake of antioxidants and your exposure to free radicals is an important factor to consider when it comes to whether or not you should supplement antioxidants in the diet. It’s worth noting that antioxidants work in synergy with each other and therefore, striking a balance with intake is key if you’re going to get the full benefit.
Before you turn to supplementing, the best first step is to start making simple changes to your diet that will promote a better balance of antioxidants compared to free radicals. That means ramping up your intake of the foods listed above is a good starting point.
For those out there that are working hard to build their diet around minimally processed foods, with a focus on incorporating plenty of antioxidant rich sources of food, the need to supplement is probably low.
Level 3 personal trainer, Jon Hodgkinson, is resident nutritionist at Triathlon Coaching UK and founder of Real Food Function. He has worked in the health & fitness industry for nearly 15 years and has a Diploma of Intrinsic Biomechanics