Antioxidants: healing agents or hype?
There’s a lot of talk out there in the wellness world about antioxidants, and how consuming them can protect you from chronic disease and cancer, reverse signs of aging, improve cognition, and overall help you live a healthier life. But what is an antioxidant? Do we need to be consuming more antioxidants in our daily diets? Do we need a supplement? Let’s take a closer look…
Over the years, researchers discovered that many diseases were linked to oxidative damage from free radicals; compounds with unpaired electrons that stabilize themselves by oxidizing other molecules, thus creating a chain of cell destruction within the body. These free radicals exist as a by-product of simply being alive. We are constantly being exposed to pollutants, chemicals, and even strenuous exercise can take a toll on our delicate bodies.
Essentially, it was found that many foods containing specific compounds can combat free radicals by donating electrons to them. The best known antioxidants include vitamin E, vitamin C, polyphenols, and the carotenoids beta carotene and lycopene. These can be found predominantly in fruits (especially berries) and vegetables, and also in coffee, teas, cocoa, and red wine.
This concept has produced a massive increase in antioxidant supplements. But despite decades of research, clinical studies have inconclusive evidence to support that mega-doses of these vitamins protect against oxidative damage, and may actually cause harm. Most research reported that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements didn’t protect against heart disease or cancer. One study even showed that taking beta-carotene may actually increase the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers.
Here’s some additional reading material:
It appears that just because a food has a beneficial component, doesn’t mean a pill can or will mimic the same effect in our complex human bodies. There are plenty of factors to consider and analyze, and research continues to investigate the science of human nutrition. The fact remains that people who eat diets high in fruits and vegetables are less likely to have heart and vascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. It may be because these people generally live healthier lives, perhaps by exercising moderately and not smoking, as well.
The bottom line:
Antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables are essential for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Even coffee, tea, red wine, and dark chocolate can be included in moderation (a dark chocolate square and glass of red sounds especially appealing tonight for some odd reason).
If you are lacking in the fruit and veggie department, start by adding two servings of fruits and two servings of veggies to your daily diet. If fruits and veggies already make an appearance on your daily plate, try to increase your variety. Different color foods offer different beneficial nutrients, so mix it up!