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All About Antioxidants

Antioxidants have been a hot topic for a long time, which is why it's surprising how few of us really understand what they are and how they work.

Even those that make a point of incorporating antioxidants into their diet often only do so because of a generic appreciation of the cancer warding effects. That isn't exactly the kind of understanding that breeds confidence (or that encourages sustained dedication to an antioxidant-rich diet).

Antioxidants are important. You deserve to know why it's worth your time to be intentional about getting enough of them.


It's impossible to understand how antioxidants work without a little chemistry. But don't let that stop you; we won't exactly need to memorize the table of elements.

In fact, all you really need to know is that all atoms have rings of electrons that move around a nucleus. As different atoms interact, electrons can be transferred between their outer rings, effectively changing the chemical nature of the atoms.

Antioxidants are simply atoms or molecules that have an extra electron to give away without causing much of a fuss, like a millionaire dropping a twenty-dollar bill in the Salvation Army jar at Christmas.

We know what you're thinking: Wow! An extra electron. No wonder antioxidants are such a big deal.

Okay, okay, not a very impressive fact on it's own. But that extra electron may seem like a bigger deal when you know about the electron leaching damage of…

Free Radicals

Free radicals are the opposites of antioxidants, and the real reason that antioxidants matter in the first place.

While antioxidants have an electron to give, free radicals have an electron deficit. As they interact with other atoms or molecules, they steal an electron to make themselves complete. The atom that lost its electron now has its own deficit, and has become a free radical itself.

As the electron deficit is passed from one atom to the next inside of our bodies, the atoms are altered. That becomes a particular problem when the atoms that make up our cells' DNA become compromised. That type of alteration to our DNA can cause the development of cancer. Free radicals can also cause cholesterol issues and the corresponding serious health conditions like stroke and heart disease.

How Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals

Antioxidants simply end the pattern of atom leeching that extends the life and damage of free radicals in our bodies. By giving an electron to a free radical without turning around and taking it from another molecule, the chain is broken.

Just imagine a person being rude to somebody else in the morning. That causes the other person to become angry and they end up being rude to another later. Continued rudeness causes anger to spread from person to person until somebody finally responds with a big hug. Antioxidants are like the huggy guy.

How's that for chemistry talk?

The bottom line is that free radicals do real damage in our bodies, and can lead to serious health consequences. Antioxidants limit their impact by ending their spread.

Where Free Radicals Come From

It is true that environmental factors cause an increase of free radical levels in our bodies. pollution, petroleum products, pesticides, and a variety of chemicals and radiation all cause an increase in free radical presence. Cigarette smoking has been shown to be one of the most damaging environmental factors.

Changes to your environment or behaviors may decrease free radicals, but nothing can prevent them altogether. 

That's because free radicals are created through our bodies own natural metabolic processes. When our cells create energy, there is always a certain amount of free radical presence produced as well.

Lifestyle factors are important, but there is still no substitute for a diet rich in antioxidants.

The Best Sources of Antioxidants

Certain supplements contain antioxidants, and could potentially give a boost. But there is no substitute for a diet heavy in the foods that contain them naturally.

As a general rule, think vegetables, greens, and most fruits. That's because plant based foods have 64 times the antioxidant activity of animal based foods on average.

Here's a list of some of the most antioxidant-rich foods:

  • Walnuts
  • Berries (especially Blueberries, Cranberries, and Blackberries)
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Brocolli
  • Beans (Red and Pinto)
  • Apples
  • Plums
  • Artichokes

There's bound to be something on that list that you wouldn't mind eating a little more often!


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