You might know that antioxidants are part of a healthy diet. But most people don't actually know what antioxidants are, or why they're so great for your wellbeing. So we're going to look at how antioxidants optimise your health naturally.
But to understand how antioxidants work, we need to look at WHY we need them.
What are oxidants and oxidative stress?
Oxidants, or free radicals as they are commonly known, are like fire-starters. They are molecules that are a little bit unstable, because they are missing an electron.
We produce free radicals every day, just in our daily metabolism. Exercise, detoxification and digestion are just a few of the ways that we create free radicals. Even breathing can create them!
But free radicals can also come from outside the body. Toxic chemicals, smoke, drinking, stressful situations and processed foods can all cause free radical production.
These free radicals race around your body and snatch electrons from other molecules in your body, so they can become stable. The problem is, this starts a cascade. The molecule that has an electron snatched becomes a free radical. This slowly damages the tissues and can lead towards chronic disease and injury.
This is where oxidative stress comes in. Oxidative stress is the ongoing damage that free radicals cause to the bodies cells. This process can cause inflammation in the tissues and this creates another cycle where inflammation can create even more free radicals.
If this is allowed to continue, you could become very sick. Things like premature ageing, Alzheimer's, autoimmune disease and even cancer are believed to be linked to oxidative stress and inflammation.
Unfortunately, free radicals are just a part of being a human. But there is a solution to the problem: Antioxidants.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are natural substances found in foods, particularly plant foods. And they are great at getting your free radicals under control.
If free radicals are firestarters, antioxidants are your firefighters. They put out the flames before it turns into a raging blaze of oxidative stress and inflammation.
They do this by donating a spare electron to the free radical. But unlike other molecules, antioxidants don't become unstable. This stops the chain reaction in its tracks, and prevents damage to the body.
Some antioxidants are produced within the body itself. But the majority of our antioxidants come from our food.
How can you protect yourself from free radicals? -
Protecting yourself from oxidative stress is relatively easy. There's just a few steps:
Avoid consuming highly processed foods, fried foods and high sugar foods
Avoid other sources of free radicals, such as excess drinking, smoking and chemical exposure
Manage your stress levels with light exercise, breathing or other simple techniques
Bump up your intake of antioxidants in the diet – aim for a rainbow each day
The rainbow of antioxidants
Ready to boost your antioxidant intake? The best way to do this is to consume a variety of different antioxidants each day. How can you achieve this? By eating the rainbow!
Every different hue of plant has a different group of antioxidants that benefit us in different ways. Here are some of the colours you want to consume regularly.
Red fruit and vegetables are full of lycopene. Lycopene protects the heart, and also protects against cancer, particularly male cancers.
To boost up your red antioxidants, you can add in:
An important thing to note is that lycopene is best consumed when cooked and/or served with fat. So add a handful of nuts to your red apple snack, or drizzle olive oil into your pasta sauce.
Orange and yellow produce are the best choice for healthy, happy eyes. They are full of carotenoids – a class of antioxidant that convert into fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A. They protect your eyes from age-related damage and deterioration.
To increase your intake, add in:
Of all of the produce, greens are probably the best known for their health benefits. Green vegetables contain plenty of fibre and folate. These support your digestive tract, heart health and brain health.
But they may also contain indoles and carotenoids. These antioxidants are known for their anti-cancer benefits. Research is even exploring how they can help with chemotherapy.
To bump up your green intake, add in:
Other leafy greens
The purple and blue produce are often the prettiest. But they also contain a class of antioxidants called antho-cyanins. These protect your cells from damage and inflammation.
They may help to reduce your risk of many conditions, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. So if you want a healthier heart, a lower chance of disease and reduced inflammation levels, this is the hue for you.
To add purple and blue into your diet, start with:
White might not be a colour as such. But when it comes to plant foods, it packs plenty of antioxidants. The types of antioxidants vary in white foods, but a common example is allicin. Allicin, found in crushed garlic, boosts your immunity. It's ideal for when you're feeling under the weather.
Ready to try pale antioxidant options? Add some:
It might seem like a strange colour to include in a 'rainbow'. But there is a potent group of antioxidants called catechins in brown plant foods. Catechins are fantastic at keeping your heart health and circulation in an optimal state. Some foods have even been found to reduce blood pressure naturally!
To reap the benefits of brown, include:
So if you want to stay as healthy as possible, you need to reduce oxidative stress. By eating well, reducing stress and avoiding free radicals, you can significantly reduce your chance of illness and premature ageing. And who doesn't want that?