In my columns I’ve frequently mentioned antioxidants contained in certain foods. I’m sure this sounds like a foreign language to some people, but at the risk of boring the audience I’ll attempt to explain what antioxidants are and do.
When we eat something, our body breaks its molecules down into simpler components. All this takes place inside our living cells. At the molecular level everything is made of tiny particles.
Inside each atom are positively and negatively charged parts. The center part is the positively charged nucleus. Electrons revolve around it and are negatively charged. Molecules are made up of atoms and both are more stable if they have a full outer shell of electrons.
If these molecules don’t have a full outer shell they either lose or gain electrons until they do. This trait makes them very chemically reactive. Within the body these particles are called free-radicals. All cells generate them continually.
If these free radicals steal an electron from a neighboring molecule a new free radical is formed. This alters normal chemical processes within a cell. Our cells take in food and oxygen. Oxygen helps break food down to derive energy. We call that process oxidation.
Once broken down into smaller components, cells use some of that energy to reconfigure the molecules into different ones. That’s how our body achieves growth and repairs. However, free radicals are formed in this process.
Oxygen is essential for life. It’s also responsible for the formation of free radicals. Free radicals also are found in the air. They also can be formed by ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
An excess of free radicals can be alleviated by consuming chemicals called antioxidants. Antioxidants stick to these free radicals almost like a magnet. This keeps other molecules from being attacked and changed. In the process these antioxidants become relatively stable compounds and tend to stop the domino effect of molecular breakdown. Our body processes run more smoothly.
Vitamins C and E are important antioxidants. Some minerals such as selenium and manganese are antioxidants, and there are plant compounds that break down free radicals, such as beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Lycopene is another antioxidant found in tomatoes. Resveratrol is an important one found in grapes and other fruits.
So what’s the best way to get these antioxidants? There is one simple answer, by eating healthy foods containing them. Supplements can often exacerbate the problem. Consuming too much in concentrated form can essentially cause the same problems the free radicals do.
Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables will provide the body with lots of antioxidants. While it may sound funny, bright colored foods are best. That’s assuming they’re not altered with artificial coloring.
Raw foods are important too, because many vitamins can be destroyed by cooking. I’m by no means saying we shouldn’t cook things. I’m only saying we should always include raw fruits and vegetables in our diet.
As for supplements, always consult your doctor. If he or she prescribes them, by all means take them. Otherwise be wary of mega-doses. You could be asking for trouble.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).