June 07, 2012

Antioxidants and Free Radicals: keeping the peace inside our bodies.

Written By MissFIT Becky

Antioxidant this.  Antioxidant that.  Eat this food that’s rich in antioxidants and exercise every day and you’ll live forever!  Oh, but exercise causes free radicals and those will kill us!  Wait, what are free radicals?  While we’re at it, what are antioxidants?  I’m overwhelmed.  How about pizza tonight?  But pizza makes you fat.  Ugh.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that it would be good to explain a bit about both antioxidants and free radicals since health claims about them are plastered all over these days, especially on our food packaging.

Antioxidants help prevent oxidation (a.k.a. oxidative stress).  Oxidation can lead to the production of free radicals.  Free radicals cause a series of reactions in our body that can lead to damage or death of our cells.  This can lead to disease.

To explain just a bit more…

Mulberries in my back yard. Nuisances to some, free radical warriors to me.

Our bodies are constantly producing oxidative stress as a normal (and very necessary) process of life.  When the body creates energy using our mitochondria, some bi-products are free radicals, but that’s obviously a good thing as we all need our bodies to create energy from our food.


Another example of the production of free radicals comes from exercise, as you may have heard.  When we perform cardiovascular exercise, our heart rates rise, we breath heavier and we breathe more often, increasing our oxygen consumption dramatically.  This leads to an increase in free radicals.  Though, recent research shows there is only danger when there is a consistent pushing of cardiovascular exercise to the point of exhaustion.

So, yes, exercise does create free radicals (but please note that the benefits of exercise FAR outweigh the fact that free radicals are produced in the process).  Exercise would be what’s called an “inside source” when it comes to producing free radicals, which also can include:  inflammation, having a compromised immune system and stress.  Outside sources of free radicals could include:  pollution, pesticides, UV rays and tobacco smoke.

Let it be said that not ALL free radicals are considered harmful.  In fact, it’s been shown that some free radicals help to get rid of microbes that could lead to disease.  So, the ultimate goal is to create a balance of oxidants, not completely remove them.

Long, and maybe boring story (to some) short, antioxidants can help protect us from disease by binding up free radicals, and a diet low in antioxidants can be harmful to our health.

You may have heard of a few of these said antioxidants under the names of:  vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene.  There’s more, but those are the most commonly known.

Whew.  Sorry to get a bit technical.  I do it sometimes when I feel it’s necessary for proper understanding.  It’s not for everyone, and I do recognize that, so here’s the take home message:

Consume more whole foods high in antioxidants.  a.k.a.  EAT YOUR FRUITS AND VEGETABLES and beans, tea, nuts, whole grains, herbs and yes, dark chocolate for long term health.

Why not supplements?

Well, there is not enough solid research on supplemental antioxidants and their effects on our body.  Some studies show positive, health inducing outcomes.  Others show harmful effects if too high levels of antioxidants (like vitamin E) are found in our bodies (remember that whole balance thing I was talking about?).

So, to be on the safe side, eating the whole food sources containing antioxidants is a safe way to balance out free radicals and create a disease preventing, peaceful environment in our bodies.

Why whole foods?

When supplements are synthetically derived usually just a single strand or two of antioxidants are taken to put into the supplement.  A food source has whats called a synergistic effect.  That’s a fancy term meaning that food offers us more than single strands of antioxidants.  We potentially get multiple antioxidant blends in combination with many other factors including:  vitamins and minerals, fiber, and protein.  That just can’t be reproduced in a lab and put into a pill!

Foods naturally high in antioxidants:

  • cranberries
  • blueberries
  • blackberries
  • mulberries
  • beans
  • artichokes
  • russet potatoes
  • pecans
  • walnuts
  • hazelnuts
  • ground cloves
  • ground cinnamon
  • oregano

One last recommendation:  mostly ignore any large claims on packaging.  Many times a food manufacturer will add in a tad of antioxidants so they can make all sorts of claims but then really, the product is just loaded with junk that is not healthy for our body.

My biggest advice is to eat whole foods high in antioxidants.  That, and keep on exercising.

Becky Nowak

Certified personal trainer for the past 10 years. Married 9 years. Working for MissFIT 8 years. Mom for 3 years, Precision Nutrition certified, and a lifetime lover of all things wellness! Find out More >

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