Nutritional supplementation is a huge industry in Australia, and the market for diet pills and magic health cures is never ending. One favourite buzz word that often arises in the media is ‘antioxidants’. Touted as a cure for almost everything, antioxidants are an illustrious ‘something’ that appears to do a lot but that not many people know the why or how behind. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be?
What are antioxidants?
An antioxidant refers to a compound that prevents free-radical damage. More specifically, it refers to the function of the compound, rather than the compound itself, as something can act as an antioxidant in one reaction, but an oxidant in another. The antioxidant function works by donating electrons to free-radicals. Free-radicals are a by-product of foods that our body breaks down, as well as pollutants in our environment such as cigarette smoke and sun damage.
Unfortunately we cannot avoid them completely. They have an incomplete shell, making them unstable and highly reactive. This instability can result in damage to the cells of our body. This may appear in aging of our skin, decline in organ function and can also be implicated in chronic disease. Antioxidants donate their electrons to make them less reactive and therefore less damaging. There are many different types of antioxidants each behaving in a unique way, but they are predominately found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.
The supplementation industry has taken full advantage of the power of antioxidants and a myriad of pills, powders and skincare regimes are now available as a result. What many people don’t realise is, that most of us can get all the antioxidants that our body needs from our diet, no pills required! Vitamin A, or retinol, for example, is found in many antiaging products, but is also found in high amounts (in its beta-carotene form) in orange vegetables such as carrot, sweet potato and pumpkin as well as green leafy vegetables . Some other common types that you might have heard of include: lycopene found in tomatoes, anthocyanins in berries, flavonols found in tea, cocoa and red wine, and Vitamin E found in sunflower seeds and oil, to name a few.
What’s the right amount of antioxidants?
The old adage of ‘if a little is good then more is better’ does not necessarily ring true either. Research has shown that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene. One particular longitudinal study has found some interesting results. Authors reported that high levels of beta-carotene may be linked to a higher incidence of lung cancer in smokers. Research such as this serves as a good reminder that antioxidants and other nutritional supplements should be treated like any other medicine and used carefully under professional guidance.
The key message here is that there are many, many different types of antioxidants found in wholefoods and there is no one in particular that reigns supreme. In general, it is best to get your antioxidant boost from your diet rather than supplementation, and if supplementation is required then do so under professional guidance. Whole foods such as fruits, vegetables ,herbs, spices, grains and legumes have, in addition to antioxidants, a complex network of other vitamins and minerals and fibre that help to provide numerous other health outcomes also. Eat a wide variety of different colourful foods each day to get the full benefits.