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Can Antioxidants Really Save You?

As society becomes more conscious of its well-being, many wonder about the validity of health claims concerning nutrients that they see advertised and discussed in the media. Antioxidants are one of these “popular” nutrients. Some of the assertions heard about or seen on products containing antioxidants are, “Antioxidants will prevent you from aging!” “Avoid chronic diseases with increased consumption of antioxidants!” But as you consider the foods you eat, these claims might lead you to ask: “How do these nutrients work?”, “What kind of health benefits can they really offer?” or “What foods contain antioxidants?”

On the outset, it is important to understand how antioxidants function in the human body. Antioxidants are substances that counteract the oxidation in animal tissue, a damaging but normal effect of physiological processes. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, flavonoids (plant-based compounds), and enzymes (proteins in your body that assist in chemical reactions) that donate electrons to electron-deficient atoms, called free radicals. These free radicals are highly reactive, because free radicals have one or more unpaired electrons. These free radicals will scavenge your body to grab electrons, thereby damaging cells, proteins, and DNA. Antioxidants neutralize these dangerous atoms to prevent the harmful process of oxidation. However, in satisfying the free radicals, the antioxidants become oxidized themselves, so there is a constant need to replenish antioxidant resources.

With that general understanding of how antioxidants operate to keep us healthy, you probably want to know what type of health benefits they can offer.  Many observational studies have linked diets full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to a lower risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, cataracts, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis.

What is interesting to note is that trials testing the effects of antioxidant supplementation have yielded mixed results. There are a number of reasons why this may have occurred. Firstly, the trial patients may have already been too sick to benefit from antioxidant consumption, or deficiencies of other nutrients in the body may have limited absorption of the antioxidants. The American Heart Association (AHA) has stated publicly that they do not recommend using antioxidant supplements “until more complete data are in.” However, the AHA suggests that “people eat a variety of foods daily from all of the basic food groups.” It is agreed that consuming foods rich in antioxidants is a vital measure to take in preventing chronic diseases.

An appropriate range of intake for these nutrients needs to be considered, now that one is fully cognizant of their make-up. You should know that consuming mega-doses of antioxidants can be harmful due to their potential toxicity and interactions with other medications. You cannot inhale foods rich in antioxidants, hoping that you will never see a wrinkle on your skin or a gray hair sprouting from your head. Instead, one should use the system of measurement instituted by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The RDA provides a measurement of how much of a nutrient is sufficient to meet the needs of 98% of the healthy population in each life-stage and gender group. RDAs for antioxidants can be found by searching “RDA for antioxidants” on Google. The search result will offer a number of aesthetically pleasing tables and charts describing how much of each antioxidant one should be getting from his diet.

Where to find these antioxidants is the last thing to be determined. Fortunately, antioxidants are present in many natural foods that one can consume as part of a healthy diet. Vitamins can be found in fresh whole foods in all food groups, especially fruits and vegetables. Minerals can be included in one’s diet by eating foods like fish, poultry, and certain vegetables. Flavonoids are present in beverages such as beer, tea, and wine, while enzymes are particularly present in meats. As long as you make eating a healthy diet an important part of your day, you will be certain to consume sufficient quantities of natural antioxidants.

By including these warriors of health in your diet, you can be sure that the population of free radicals damaging your body is minimal (some free radicals are actually critical to growth and repair of muscles). Remember, that studies on antioxidant supplementation have shown inconclusive results about the benefits of consuming this nutrient from non-natural sources. Stick to appropriate portions of antioxidant-rich foods, and give your body the right tools it needs to maintain a strong operating system. These foods are simple, inexpensive products that can be included in any diet as a part of any person’s busy schedule. Eat healthy and live strong!