Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. L2 Strength & Conditioning Coach.
You have probably heard of antioxidants whether through reading information or seeing products being marketed including antioxidants.
This article aims to improve your knowledge so you know why you should include antioxidant rich foods in your diet and what to look for.
In this article, you will discover all you need to know about antioxidants, including why they are important, how they can improve your sports performance and positively impact your hormones, and all-around give your health a nudge in the right direction.
You will also discover how you can get more of them into your body to help you give your exercise routine more power -- and the best part about this is that it’s a straightforward process, too.
We shall cover the following points:
- What are antioxidants?
- What do free radicals do?
- #1 Benefit
- Where to get antioxidants
Antioxidants and Your Health
It will not be long before you come across the topic of antioxidants if you are interested in fitness. It is one of those topics that keeps cropping up again and again, and once you understand why so many people are talking about it, it won’t be a mystery as to why this is the case.
There has been a lot of research into the benefits of antioxidants in recent years, and what researchers have discovered is that, well, there is a lot of value in antioxidants as outlined by the Victoria State Government of Australia.
Research in to athletic performance has documented the importance of antioxidant intake through diet and nutrition for those who are going through gruelling performance programs.
While antioxidants will not do all the work, they can help to maximize your returns -- and ensure that your overall health is kept in check too, both on a short-term and long-term basis.
What are Antioxidants?
First of all, we have to say: the body is a complicated business. Completing an undergraduate university degree would provide you with a good understanding, doing a postgraduate degree would provide an greater insight.
However, we realize that most people just want a basic understanding to help them make the right choices.
Therefore, we’ll keep things simple.
The main thing to know about antioxidants is that they can be used to stop important cells from becoming damaged as outlined as outlined by the British Medical Journal. This can happen when healthy cells become oxidized.
If a cell metabolises oxygen, then they’ll become free radicals (more on them below), ultimately causing damage to the human body’s DNA and cells. So how do antioxidants step in to help us?
It’s all in the name. If we would say that cells can oxidize, then antioxidants are there to identify the threat and prevent the cells from becoming oxidized by sacrificing one of their electrons which is explained by the Harvard Medical School.
They’re essentially an important line of defence for your body, which can help too many free radicals from gathering in your body.
You’ll prevent some of these naturally, but in many cases, they won’t be enough -- and if you don’t have enough in your body, then over many years, you might find that these oxidized cells have too strong a grip on your body, which can lead to a whole host of diseases and ultimately, death.
More About Oxidation
If you’re ready to understand a little more about the oxidation process, then take a read here, where we’ll dive a little deeper into the science behind the process.
If you’d rather not get into the nitty-gritty details, then move on to the next section.
So, what is oxidation?
Oxidation is a chemical reaction. It’s not unusual, and it’s not always bad -- in fact, there are several processes both in the body and in the real world where we want oxidation to happen.
In the body, the process of oxidation can cause some cells to have electrons that have transformed from one molecule into something else. During the process of moving, the bonds that keep the structure of the cells in place can be broken, which causes damage to the body. This is often referred to as oxidative stress.
Once they’re damaged, they can have a continuing negative impact, since they can go on to damage other internal structures, such as DNA, lipids, and cellular proteins.
All about Free Radicals
When you’re reading about antioxidants, you’ll come across the term ‘Free Radicals.’
That sounds like a name that refers to a bunch of political revolutionaries, but in biology terms, it refers to something else entirely -- though they can be just as damaging!
A free radical refers to a molecule that has unpaired molecules (it can have just one or more) as explained by the British Medical Bulletin in 1993. Generally, you’ll find that electrons come in pairs -- that’s as true for all things as it is for the body.
If an electron is not paired, then it becomes unstable -- and this can be damaging. At this stage, we’d say that it has become a ‘free radical.’
In order to become stable again, it’ll have to come up with another electron from somewhere. To get it, it’ll steal from one another molecule. At that stage, that molecule becomes a free radical, and then they have to find another electron from somewhere else.
So, what happens, in effect, is that you get something of a domino effect, whereby molecules are losing electrons and then stealing one from elsewhere. The problem is that even if they’re able to get an electron from somewhere, they don’t fully make it back to where they once were.
The structure of the molecule has been changed too much and is permanently damaged.
So how can antioxidants help? If there’s enough in the body, then an antioxidant will donate an electron to the free radical molecule. At this stage, the domino effect that we mentioned above will come to end. The molecule will have what it’s looking for, so there’ll be no reason to steal one from elsewhere.
You can think of antioxidants as a hero that sacrifices itself. It becomes a free radical voluntarily by giving away one of its electrons. The good news for us humans is that antioxidants can get back to a stable position without external help; they do not become highly reactive.
We have made free radicals sound pretty scary here, but the truth is that you’ll always have some in your body since your body naturally produces them.
Problems arise when you have too many in your system, which is something that can happen for various reasons, such as diet and lifestyle factors. If you’ve got too many in your body, then you’ll be more susceptible to a variety of diseases.
What Will Free Radicals Do to You?
By this stage it has been established that having free radicals in your body isn’t something that you’ll want to have in abundance.
But why is this? What are they going to do to you? What is the point in getting more antioxidants into your life?
You should do it because there’s a long list of things that free radicals can do to your body. It increases the likelihood of a long line of diseases and conditions according to research.
For example, it can lead to vision problems, because of the damage that it’ll do the eye lens. Free radicals can contribute to an overall deterioration of the eye lens.
On a longer-term basis, it can cause damage to the cells in the brain, which can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, for which there is no cure.
Other problems include getting cancer, which is triggered by the damage to the DNA, and coronary heart disease. This is because the free radicals cause the artery walls to become restricted by cholesterol.
If you’re looking at how antioxidants can help to maximize your workout efforts, then think about this.
Having too many free radicals in your system will increase the likelihood of arthritis since they can cause an inflammation of the joints. That can make it much more difficult to work out to the highest level possible and can make recovery much more difficult.
Free radicals may also accelerate the aging process, although the evidence is not entirely conclusive. This will have a more subtle impact on your ability to work out, but there’s little doubt that it would have an impact.
As you get older, your body begins to wind down. Even if you could technically keep on pushing yourself, your upper limit would be lower than normal, and you would need more time to recover. If you feel young and vibrant, then you will be able to tackle an arduous training regime much better than if you felt your age.
There are plenty of reasons why you should try to increase the number of antioxidants in your system, but the number one reason why it’s worthwhile for all people, not just those going through training regimes, is that antioxidants can help to fight disease.
When we’re younger, we don’t think all that much about how our bodies will function when they’re older. However, it’s always worth keeping in mind that diseases -- and also free radicals -- take a long time to take hold in your body.
That’s why it’s important to take preventive steps when you’re younger. Just because you are not yet feeling the effects of the damage, that does not mean that they’re not happening.
If there are too many unstable cells in your body, then you will be at increased risk of various disorders and diseases such as heart disease, cancers, eye damage, and more. The studies investigating the specific impact that antioxidants have on these conditions have been positive.
For example, there have been studies that have that men with a diet that is high in the lycopene antioxidant were less likely to get prostate cancer.
So, while there are antioxidant benefits that’ll improve your overall quality of life, the number one reason why you should be taking them is that they’ll keep some pretty damaging diseases at bay. They will make it more likely that you can live your best life when you are in your later years.
Above, we discussed some of the main reasons why you should get antioxidants in your life.
Cancers and heart disease can kill you, and if there is something that can help to minimize those risks, as antioxidants can, then it’s worthwhile building them into your diet.
But there’s a reason why scientists are so excited about antioxidants, and that’s that they can have a hugely positive impact on many different aspects of your life.
In this section, we’re going to look at some of the main advantages that they can offer, but these are likely only the beginning. The research into antioxidants is relatively modern, so it’s likely that there are many more benefits that just haven’t been discovered yet.
But for now, let’s keep ourselves limited to what the research suggests.
Give your immune system a boost
If it feels like you’re always a little under the weather, then take a look at getting more antioxidants into your body. If you’re working out, then the good news is that you’re already giving your body’s immune system a boost. You can maximize this boost by incorporating some antioxidants into your diet, more of which you can read about here.
There’s some evidence to suggest that antioxidants can help a person to work out harder and for longer.
This happens in several ways, but the most prevalent way is that antioxidants can help to combat the effects of oxidative stress, which naturally happens during exercise, especially if it’s an intense workout which is discussed in the publication 'Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition'.
A body under this type of stress will also be more susceptible to picking up injuries and the healing process will be longer and more impaired, too. There are certain antioxidants, specifically vitamin C, that can help with recovery, such as helping with tissue repair, helpful if you are involved in contact sports such as rugby, boxing or MMA.
Compared to the positive impact that antioxidants can have on cancer, the appearance-boosting qualities that it can give a person might not be quite as important.
But we’d be lying if we said that appearance is entirely unimportant -- and if there’s something out there that can have us looking at our best, then we’ll take it. So how can antioxidants help to improve your appearance?
They also have a positive impact on the skin. Studies have shown that not only can they reduce acne, but they all-around boost the skin by creating a protective layer that stops toxins from entering the skin.
Where To Get Antioxidants
By this stage, you’ve probably been convinced of the value of antioxidants (though there’s more info later on in the article!).
The question is, where can you get them?
We’ve got some bad but unsurprising news...you’re not going to find too many of them in a cheeseburger. But that’s no problem, because you knew that cheeseburgers were not pushing you towards being the healthiest version of yourself anyway.
There are plenty of foods that have been shown to be high in antioxidants. It’s important to remember that there’s not just one 'antioxidant,’ there are many different types, and they typically all bring something different to the table. Some help with pushing your heart and lung health in the right direction, while others are good for your bones, vision, and immune system.
Rather than trying to focus on one specific goal when it comes to antioxidants, you should instead take a look at building a diet that’s rich in antioxidant foods. This way, you won’t be consciously thinking about giving your body antioxidants -- they’ll just be a fundamental part of what you eat.
So what should you be including in your diet?
There are a lot of foods that have been shown to contain antioxidants, and the truth is that many others will not have been discovered yet. So, do not take what we’re saying here as a definitive list.
What we are including is just some of the big hitters that you cannot really go wrong with.
It will come as no surprise that fruits and vegetables score highly on the list.
If you have broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, kale, spinach, and carrots in your diet, then you will be on the right path.
For those of us that can't stand the thought of a kale smoothie there are some delicious sources of antioxidants, too which may be considered sinful -- for example, there is a lot packed into dark chocolate and red wine, which means you can have some of these (remember: in moderation) without feeling guilty.
However, even tea leaves and coffee beans contain antioxidants, so you may already be getting some without even knowing it.
The Nutrition Journal has investigated the the antioxidant content of 3100 different foods and beverages which you can take a look at, here.
There's certainly some surprising sources that you can easily include in your diet.
Vitamins and Minerals
There are plenty of antioxidants in vitamins and minerals, known as nutrient antioxidants.
As such, it’s a good idea to look at foods that are rich in these. Antioxidants are a relatively new topic of interest for researchers, but scientists have been looking into vitamins and minerals for decades -- and that means we have a good understanding of what foods you need to consume to benefit the most.
There are too many vitamins and minerals to name here, but we’ll give you a few basic foods that should be part of your diet.
- Vitamin E - you can look at sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts.
- Vitamin C - try orange juice, grapefruit, kiwis, and red bell peppers.
- Vitamin A - broccoli, carrots and fish.
- Zinc - you can live well by shucking an oyster or two.
- Copper - organ meats such as liver or seeds and nuts.
- Selenium - white meats such as turkey or chicken are great sources.
Herbs and Medicinal Plants
Functional plants, herbs with proven medicinal effects which maybe considered botanicals are also useful sources.
A variety of these can be often found in supplements if you're not to confident to add them to your cooking, but take heed when buying them or where you buy them from as there are many products that are't safe or regulated on places such as Amazon or Ebay.
You can check out our safety guide, here.
What to Avoid
Of course, it’s not just about giving your body some antioxidants. It’s all about limiting the number of free radicals in your body.
Your body is naturally going to produce some, even exercise produces naturally occuring free radicals, and that’s fine -- but there are some foods that’ll put even more into your system, and that’s not good.
If you’re doing that, then you might keep things under relative control by eating healthy, but you won’t see the true benefits. For every step forward, you’d be taking one step back.
While you don’t have to avoid the foods that have free radicals entirely, you should minimize your intake.
It will come as little surprise that junk food, processed foods, and foods that contain simple sugars, colorings and additives all have high levels of free radicals as investigated by the US Army Food Engineering Laboratory.
There are household items that can release free radicals too, while cigarettes and alcohol contain a lot too.
Fizzy drinks and unhealthy types of (saturated) fat used to fry foods can also be added to the list. In essence, if, in the past, you’ve heard that a type of food isn’t good for you, then it’s likely to have free radicals.
On the otherside of the coin, healthy fats (unsaturated) found in eggs, seeds, nuts, fish and avocado are vital to help regulate hormones and store vitamins and minerals.
We all know that leafy greens are good for us, and that sugary drinks are not good for us.
Impact on Fitness
There are a lot of reasons why you would want to get more antioxidants in your life; as we’ve seen above, they can bring a lot of benefits.
If you are trying to improve your fitness or you’re going through an especially gruelling workout period, then it’ll be even more important that you get antioxidant dietary supplements into your life as exhaustive exercise generates free radicals.
That is because they can have a positive impact on fitness. One of the main reasons why people must give up or draw back on their fitness regime is because they have joint pain, such as osteoarthritis.
There are many repetitive motions when you are working out which can cause this. Free radicals accelerate the arthritic process. And once you are suffering from that, you might find that it’s not long before you’re out of the fitness routine.
Antioxidants help to slow down this process, and more generally help soft tissue to recover. If you’re feeling the wear and tear effects of exercise less than you would, then you’ll find that you’re able to go for harder and for longer.
It’s also important to remember that because high intensity bouts of exercise can produce free radicals, so it’s always a good idea to eat foods that are rich in antioxidants to balance things out.
Keeping Things in Moderation
Keep in mind that there is such a thing as having too many antioxidants, so keep things under control.
If you have too many, then you’ll be an increased risk of impaired immunity, while from an exercise point of view, it can disrupt your body’s workout rhythm, and undo some of the health benefits.
That’s why moderation is key to everything!
Focusing On Your Workout
While there’s a lot of evidence that antioxidants can help a person to maximize their workout returns and be as fit as possible, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Antioxidants aren’t going to do all the work for you. If you want to get the most from your exercise efforts, then the focus should be on the intensity and smartness of your workout.
Of course, not for nothing do they say that your fitness will come half from the intensity of your work, half from what you’re feeding your body.
If you’re able to eat a varied diet that gives its body what it needs, keep hydrated, also supplement your diet with antioxidants whilst getting good sleep, then you’ll find that it’s much easier to reach your fitness goals.
It’s always a good idea to periodically review your fitness regime and your diet.
There are two common mistakes that people make when it comes to their fitness; they fail to develop their regime, and they let bad habits creep into their diet.
If you’re eating fresh, healthy meals, and also getting your fill of antioxidants and other body-boosting substances, then you’ll be making your fitness tasks much easier to reach.
If you’re unsure of how to get started, or you’ve hit something of a plateau, then look at getting help from other sources. For example, if you buy 4 or more bottles of Military Muscle you will receive free nutrition and workout plans developed by a qualified personal trainer.
There are plenty of podcasts, trainers, books, blogs, and more that can give you the information you need. However, ensure that any advice is from a qualified source, and not just a celebrity who has been using steroids.
As we’ve seen, there’s much to love when it comes to antioxidants. While the research is still in its infancy, the health benefits that they can bring to people of all ages are becoming less disputed with each new paper that comes out.
Though it’s still unclear exactly why they’re so beneficial to our health and how they get into our system, there’s enough information there to suggest that it’s worthwhile getting antioxidants into your life in one form or another.
Of course, antioxidants are not going to do all the work towards leading a healthy life; they should be considered one aspect of an overall healthy lifestyle.
If you’re living an active lifestyle, eating well, getting your fill of antioxidants, and -- something that’s often forgotten -- getting enough rest, then you’ll find that you’re feeling mentally and physically well, and that you’re able to go for longer with your workouts.
It’s not just about helping you to improve your fitness on a short-term basis; an antioxidant is something that’ll have a long-term positive impact on your health. If you want to be as healthy many years down the line as you are today, then look at upping the number of antioxidants in your life (providing you’re not already doing so).
If you’re able to continue working out as a high intensity at a time when most people have to give up, then you’ll know that they’ll have been worth it.