What are antioxidants & why do they have such a positive impact on our health? Antioxidants are compounds that protect our cells from damage caused by oxidation and oxidation sometimes causes the formation of free radicals.
Free radicals are formed during digestion; when our immune system fights an infection; when we are exposed to pollution; toxins; smoking; asbestos and too much sun. Some free radical formation is normal, it’s when it starts to happen in excess that it becomes a problem for our bodies to cope with. Excessive free radical formation damages our cells, which then leads to chronic diseases such as kidney disease, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, Parkinson disease, diabetes, cataracts and Alzheimer disease.
Here’s where antioxidants come to the rescue, they stabilize the free radicals so that they can no longer cause cell damage. According to a study published in 2013, we have 37.2 trillion cells in our bodies, so it really pays to look after them!
So, what are the antioxidants and where do we find them? They are a group of vitamins, minerals and other compounds like beta-carotene and phytochemicals. Some minerals don’t themselves, stabilize the free radicals, but are required to be ‘helpers’ in the reactions that do stabilize them.
Our bodies cannot make antioxidants, we have to get them from the food we eat. Vitamin A, E, C, selenium, copper, zinc, manganese and iron are the main players in this antioxidant defence system of ours. They are mainly found in vegetables and fruit, so this is a compelling reason to cram as many veggies as you can into your daily diet.
What then, is the connection of antioxidants to ‘superfoods’? The Oxford English dictionary defines the term ‘superfood’ as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”. Due to the role antioxidants play in the prevention of disease, any food that is high in antioxidants is a ‘superfood’. Foods like berries, cruciferous vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds are just a few examples.
Variety is the key when focusing on antioxidant-rich foods. Different foods contain different antioxidants, so eating a wide variety of these foods is the key to benefiting from their disease-preventing effects.
by Paula Southworth
Nutritionist and Health Coach
(BSc Human Nutrition and Sports Science, Massey University)
Member of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand