We’ve all heard that foods that are rich in antioxidants are good for you, but what are antioxidants, anyway? Here’s a mini lesson on what antioxidants actually are and what foods we can eat to have an antioxidant-rich diet:
In order to turn the food we eat into energy, our body uses a process called metabolism to break down food and eventually turn it into energy. This is the energy that powers our heart to beat, our muscles to move, etc. One of the main ingredients in metabolism is oxygen – without oxygen, metabolism can’t happen! Yay for oxygen, right? Oxygen is a very reactive element, meaning it wants to pair up with other molecules. Because it’s so reactive, it can also get a little wild, causing the formation of what are called “free radicals”. A free radical is basically a super reactive molecule that really, really wants to pair up with another molecule. Free radicals can really become excessive when you’re exposed to pollution, herbicides, radiation, smoke, etc.
Free radicals have their pros and cons -- They’re good in small doses because they can help our body fight off unwanted invaders, like bacteria and viruses. They’re destructive in high doses because they can cause deformations in our DNA, proteins, and cell membranes. These deformations can lead to an array of health concerns, including cancer and heart disease.
So, what can we do to prevent our bodies from getting damaged by free radicals? That’s where our friend, the antioxidant, comes in!
Antioxidants are a group of compounds that can neutralize free radicals. On the atomic level, antioxidants donate an electron to the free radical, causing the free radical molecule to go from a negatively charged molecule to a neutral molecule with no charge. This means the free radical cannot cause any damage to our cells. The antioxidants are essentially acting as a generous peace keeper, giving the free radical the atom it needs to calm down and stop being so reactive!
In the ideal situation, our bodies do have SOME free radicals because, remember, free radicals are used to fight off bacteria and viruses – we just want to achieve a good balance. Keeping the number of free radicals down to a helpful range is our goal. So what foods can we eat to promote a healthy, low number of free radicals?
· Fruit – Vitamin C is a fabulous antioxidant, and fruit is very rich in vitamin C. Blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, cherries, and plums are all great sources of vitamin C.
· Vegetables – Spinach, kale, beets, artichokes, broccoli and brussels sprouts
· Beans – kidney beans, red beans, pinto beans and black beans
So, to sum it all up, free radicals are good in small doses because our body uses them to fight off bacteria and viruses, but too many free radicals can cause scary stuff like cancer and heart disease. To keep those free radical numbers in a healthy, happy range, we can eat foods that are rich in antioxidants, which are compounds that calm down free radicals and make them harmless and neutral so they can’t cause damage to our bodies!
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