by Katie Cardner
It’s hard to believe that the very element that fills our lungs from the moment we come into this world can have some damaging effects on our health. It seems that every time I open a magazine, I see the word “antioxidant” everywhere. Yes, I know that I need to have antioxidants in my diet, but why? What exactly do they do? And why do we need an anti-oxidant when oxygen is essential for living? Let’s take a deeper look at what an “oxidant” is versus an “antioxidant.”
Listen, not all of us thrive in a chemistry class, so let’s break this down as easily as possible. Our bodies are made up of about 37 trillion cells, which are composed of many molecules. Oxidants – sometimes referred to as pro-oxidants – are molecules with unpaired electrons, which cause them to search for another electron to pair up with. Oxidants try to steal whatever electron they can find. When they steal from other molecules, they alter the chemical makeup of those molecules. Thus, oxidants can cause damage within cells in their search for stability. When another molecule loses an electron to an oxidant, that molecule then becomes an oxidant as well, since it now has an unpaired electron. Now we are in a spiraling chain of stealing electrons and creating more and more oxidants in the cell. Sounds chaotic, right? IT IS.
Let’s think of oxidation in terms of an apple. When apples are exposed to oxygen, they turn brown. This happens because the exocarp (inside part of the apple that we eat) is exposed to oxygen, which causes damage to the cells. The outer layer of the apple becomes oxidized, which causes it to turn brown.
A presence of high levels of oxidants in the body has been linked to many health issues including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune-deficiency, brain dysfunction, bone mass loss, inflammation/arthritis, eye damage, and early aging. Now, I don’t want you to be worried about the levels of oxidants in your system. To be clear, the body naturally produces oxidants throughout the day during normal metabolism. Our bodies are built to keep oxidative levels in check. But there are outside forces that can increase levels of oxidants in the body such as certain kinds of food we eat. When this happens, this tips the oxidative scale in our bodies, leaning towards negative health effects. When our bodies have a harder time getting rid of those oxidants, we experience oxidative stress. How sad is that? What we put into our bodies is causing us to experience life-threatening diseases.
Let’s take a look at some oxidants we regularly consume.
- Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, fungicides, antibiotics, and preservatives – We should try to eat more locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables to avoid this. We should also try to limit our meat intake and consume grass-fed meats as often as possible. Pesticides kill pests by creating free radicals (oxidants). You are what you eat – so if you eat something that already contains free radicals in it, your body will also obtain those free radicals.
- Alcohol – Moderation is key – too much red wine can actually cause more oxidative stress. We should be making healthy choices when we decide to drink alcoholic beverages, including what kinds of alcoholic beverages we have as well as how much we have. You’ve heard it a million times – moderation is the key to life.
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners – It is appalling how much sugar we consume in a day. My advice to you is to watch how much and what kind of sugar is already in your food and DO NOT add any sugar to your foods/drinks.
- Food coloring – If your food has coloring in it, that means it is a processed food. Although natural food coloring exists, like beet juice, it is way more expensive than synthetically creating food dye. Because of this, synthetic food dye is much more appealing to food manufacturers. Make sure you are reading labels to see what kind of food coloring is in your food. Look out for the synthetic coloring, like Red #40. If a scientist has to create a magic potion for your apple to look greener, put it back on the shelf.
- Animal protein – A lot of the same negative health effects of consuming too many oxidants are matched up with the negative health effects of consuming too much meat in one’s diet. Coincidence? Probably not. Make sure you are eating the right meat sources and limiting the amount of meat you eat to what your body actually needs. Consider switching things up with plant-based protein sources, like beans, lentils, quinoa, seeds, nuts, and tempeh/tofu. Researchers are suggesting that we switch two meals a week from meat-based to vegetarian-based options. An example would be to try having black bean burgers one night instead of ground beef. It has also been determined that cooking meats at high temperatures – broiling or grilling – can actually damage certain compounds in the meat. This damage causes oxidative stress on the meat, which you then consume. It is best to poach, steam, or sauté your meats. Think slow and steady – cooking meats at a lower temperature for a longer period of time can help reduce the amount of oxidative stress the meat experiences. So how do we get rid of these crazy oxidants in our bodies? A little heroic molecule called an antioxidant will do the trick.
So how do we get rid of these crazy oxidants in our bodies? A little heroic molecule called an antioxidant will do the trick.
Antioxidants slow down or stop the damage caused by oxidants by protecting against tissue damage at the cellular level. Antioxidants give those free radicals the extra electron they are searching for, which stabilizes the free radicals and eliminates their need to steal electrons from other molecules. By consuming more foods with antioxidants in them, we are able to help our body fight mutations that can cause so many health issues. A big misconception about antioxidants is that they are interchangeable – they aren’t. Each one has unique chemical behaviors and biological properties. Variety is key when it comes to antioxidants. Make sure you are switching up your sources. Antioxidants are found in a variety of sources, so let’s take a look at the different antioxidants out there.
- Flavonoid – good for heart health; found in teas (green and white), chocolate, grapes, berries, and apples
- Vitamin A – good for vision, our immune systems, reproduction, heart health, and our lungs and kidneys; found in sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy vegetables, squash, fish oils, milk, eggs, cheese
- Vitamin C – good for our tissue, bones, blood vessels, and skin; found in kiwi, strawberry, spinach, green peppers, and cauliflower
- Vitamin E – good for our immune systems; found in almonds, corn oil, soybean oil, mangoes, and broccoli
- Lycopene – good for our lungs, stomach, and prostate health. Lycopene reduces 2D2 (bad cholesterol) and blood pressure, and it is found in tomatoes, watermelon, and oranges.
- Lutein – good for vision; found in green veggies
- Beta-Carotene – good for eye health; found in yams, carrots, pumpkins, and mangos
- Manmade – the human body is designed to create antioxidants to balance out natural oxidants that occur in our bodies. Although we are designed to make our own antioxidants, we usually need a little help from outside sources, like the foods listed above.