How Antioxidants Work (in Terms You’ll Actually Understand)

June 12, 2018 - 3 minutes read

Closeup of blueberries containing antioxidants

The term “antioxidant” may be one of the most frequently used word in all of food advertising, but believe it or not, this buzz-word isn’t just a marketing scheme. Read on for a very basic breakdown of what these superfood compounds are responsible for and how adding them to your diet every day can keep your body running at top speed.

What are antioxidants?

To explain antioxidants, we first have to break down the process of “oxidation”.

You know how an apple or an avocado will start to turn brown if you leave it out for too long? That change is called oxidation – and the same process can occur within your cells. Essentially, what happens during oxidation is a group of molecules, atoms or ions interact with one another within your cells and create a chemical reaction that results in an electron (a negatively charged atom) being transferred from one molecule to another. When this happens on a regular basis, substances called “free radicals” are produced as a byproduct. These highly reactive substances, if left unregulated, can cause the body to go into something called “oxidative stress”.

Free radicals are like that first block in a series of dominoes – once the first one is set off, it starts a group of chain reactions. In the case of this occurring within your body, these reactions can cause damage or even death to affected cells, which has been known to play a role in the acquisition of heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases.

Berries containing antioxidants on wooden background

Antioxidants help avoid this outcome by stopping these chain reactions through one of the following means:

1. They remove the reactive free radicals; or
2. They become oxidized themselves and stop the chain reactions from continuing

Both avenues can save a cell from being damaged and therefore, eating foods with anti-oxidative properties has been linked to both cancer and heart disease prevention.

It’s basically the same thing when you put lime juice on the browning apple or wax on a car – it creates a protective mechanism, lessening the exposure of the food or metal to oxidative compounds.

Foods containing antioxidants

Antioxidants are found naturally in vitamins A, C, and E; in plant chemicals like flavanoids and carotenoids; and in minerals such as selenium. In English, that means you can find them in these types of food:

Leafy greens including kale, spinach, and cabbage
Broccoli, brussel sprouts, potatoes, and green and red bell peppers
Tomatoes and tomato juice

Citrus fruits including oranges and grapefruits
Cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, papaya, pomegranates, and avocado
Berries including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries

Nuts and Legumes:
Beans, almonds, and sunflower seeds

Most commonly: green tea

So eat your leafy greens, drink your tea and don’t let your body rust up like a Tin Man in Oz.