If you’ve ever justified a bar of dark chocolate or a glass of wine “because it’s high in antioxidants,” you’re in good company — and for good reason. Antioxidants are essential to maintaining balance in our bodies’ ecosystems and building a healthy defense against disease.
Myriad products have been created to capitalize on the health benefits of antioxidants: TV ads tout the benefits of supplemental vitamins, and supermarket shelves are loaded with products advertising, “high in antioxidants!”
With all these products in circulation, it’s important to understand how antioxidants work so that we can search out products that benefit us — and avoid products that don’t. What are antioxidants, and how do they work to promote health? Which foods are actually antioxidant powerhouses, and which are mostly marketing? Read on to find out.
How Antioxidants Work
To understand how antioxidants work, we need to first understand what they fight. Present in each of our bodies are free radicals. Free radicals caused most commonly by environmental stressors, food digestion, and exercise, among other factors. They are a normal bodily function but can be dangerous in excess amounts.
Chemically, free radicals are molecules lacking in electrons that then try to steal electrons from other molecules around them. This electron thievery leads to a chemical process called oxidation. If left unchecked, excess oxidation creates oxidative stress, which can lead to cell damage and a slew of diseases. In fact, studies have linked oxidative stress to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and several other serious diseases.
Excess levels of free radicals can cause serious damage to the body. The best remedy is preventative — and this is where antioxidants come into play.
What Antioxidants Are
Just as the name implies, antioxidants are anti-oxidation: molecules that are capable of stabilizing free radicals without oxidation. Each antioxidant molecule has extra electrons that it can give to free radicals to stabilize them.
You’ve likely heard of several antioxidants without even knowing it: Beta-carotene; vitamins A, C, and E; and Selenium are a few of the most common. Several supplements exist with the intent of capitalizing on the health benefits of antioxidants — but are they effective?
Where to Find the Most Effective Antioxidants
When it comes to antioxidants, all sources are not created equal. According to sources like Harvard Medical School, antioxidants are preventative medicine. They work best when ingested through diets rich in fruits and vegetables.
Call it an interesting quirk, but it’s how antioxidants work: whole foods beat supplements every time.
Antioxidants From Supplements
Did you know that taking a vitamin E supplement can hurt your health? While vitamin supplements are certainly helpful in many circumstances, they can also be harmful if taken incorrectly.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), high doses of beta-carotene may increase risk of lung cancer, and high doses of vitamin E may increase risks of prostate cancer and strokes. Additionally, antioxidant supplements can interact negatively with other medicines, so you should always consult with a medical professional about any supplements you take.
Antioxidants From Whole Foods
Rather than loading up on supplements, aim to consume a well-rounded diet that’s based on whole foods. To capitalize on how antioxidants work, fill your diet with their number one source: fruits and vegetables.
The USDA conducted one of the largest existing studies on antioxidant levels in fruits and vegetables, touting these as the top 12:
3. Brussels sprouts
4. Alfalfa sprouts
5. Broccoli florets
Don’t let these lists intimidate you — incorporating antioxidants into your diet doesn’t need to be difficult. Sauté up some kale with garlic and onions as a delicious side, or throw some brussels sprouts and broccoli florets into the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt.
Still wondering about how antioxidants work in that wine? You’re in luck, but stick to red: the NIH identified red wine as one of the leading sources of antioxidants in beverages (along with pomegranate juice and prune juice). And your favorite chocolate bar? You guessed it — the darker, the better, so embrace the bitter. Add some walnuts for an extra antioxidant boost.
Antioxidants On the Go
Running low on time? Keeping some snacks prepped and ready to go will make it easier for you to choose healthy in a pinch. When you first purchase a container of berries, quickly rinse them off and portion them into snack-sized bags or containers. That way, you have an antioxidant-rich, easy-to-grab snack when you’re short on time.
Packaged snacks can offer a good balance of macro and micronutrients (like antioxidants), but make sure that they’re made from whole ingredients. As you become accustomed to how antioxidants work and where to find them, you’ll be better able to recognize antioxidant-packed snacks to power your day.
At ModBalls, we’re dedicated to empowering our consumers to understand how their food truly nourishes their bodies. By understanding how antioxidants work, you’ll be able to determine how to supply your body with this essential molecule in the way that works best for you — whether that’s through a handful of berries, our nutrient-dense energy bites, or both.
Visit our website today to learn more about our snacks and our mission.