The Importance of Antioxidants in Your Diet
Posted on 16th Feb 2018 @ 9:29 AM
You may have heard of antioxidants, but are you aware of what they do, or where they come from? Many people take daily antioxidant supplements – usually for their anti-aging benefits – but don’t necessarily know about all the positive affects they can have on the body. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the world of antioxidants and find out what they are and what they can do.
What do antioxidants do?
The main role of antioxidants in the body is to prevent cells from being damaged by oxidants, which can have harmful effects on the DNA, protein and lipids in the body (National Academy of Sciences, 1993). Oxidants occur naturally in the body and they play an important role in many normal cellular processes. They can also be found in the environment, in things such as cigarette smoke and car emissions. If left alone, oxidants can cause damage to the cells of the body, contributing to conditions such as cancer, heart disease and cataracts (National Academy of Sciences, 1993).
What do we need antioxidants for?
Oxidative stress is the term used when the number of oxidants increases above that of the protective defenses in the body. A larger than usual amount of oxidants can be dangerous, as they will begin to attack your cells and DNA (National Cancer Institute, 2017).
This is when the body’s own defenses kick in by creating more antioxidants which can safely stop the damage. Antioxidants work with your immune system to fight off infections and disease (Nutrition Society, 1999). However, there is only so much that your body can create naturally – after that we have to rely on our diet to cover the gap.
Where to find antioxidants
Luckily, antioxidants can be found in plenty of foods that you are probably already eating, with the three main sources of antioxidant vitamins coming from vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene (WebMD, 2017). So next time you are at the supermarket, make sure to keep a look out for colourful fruits and vegetables, especially the purple, blue, red, yellow and orange hues. Berries such as cranberries and blueberries have long been advertised as full of antioxidants, but there are plenty of other antioxidant foods to enjoy if you aren’t keen on these.
Polyphenols are some of the most commonly found antioxidants in the diet. They are mainly found in fruit juices, tea and red wine. Vegetable, cereals, chocolate and dry legumes also contribute to the total intake (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005).
A great way to top up your daily polyphenol intake is with a nice hot cup of coffee. Scientists have suggested that coffee is in fact one of the richest sources of antioxidants in the average person’s diet, in part thanks to its high caffeine content (American Chemical Society, 2011). Coffee also contains quinines, which are antioxidants that become more potent and powerful following the roasting of the coffee beans (WebMD, 2008). Another surprising way to get your polyphenol fix is from popcorn. Not the stuff covered in butter or salt from the movies, but fresh, homemade popcorn instead. A study found that popcorn has a higher concentration of polyphenols compared to fresh fruit and vegetables. And that the tiny golden pieces that often get stuck in your teeth –is where the most nutrition lies (American Chemical Society, 2012).
A key thing to remember is that antioxidants are mainly found in plant foods, so as long as you are filling your plate with plenty of fruit and veg, you should be getting a decent amount into your diet. A full and balanced diet of all sorts of foods is key to supporting your body’s overall health.
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American Chemical Society (2011) New evidence that caffeine is a healthful antioxidant in coffee
American Chemical Society (2012) Popcorn: the snack with even higher antioxidants levels than fruits and vegetables
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2005) Polyphenols: antioxidants and beyond
National Academy of Sciences (1993) Oxidants, antioxidants, and the degenerative diseases of aging
National Cancer Institute (2017) Antioxidants and cancer prevention
Nutrition Society (1999) Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults
WebMD (2017) Super foods for optimal health
WebMD (2008) The Buzz on Coffee