What an Antioxidant is and Why it is Important


One term that is used quite often when it comes to nutritional benefits of some foods is “antioxidant”. Lots of people know that antioxidants can help prevent or cure cancer, but they don’t truly have much of an idea about what an antioxidant is or what it does. Why are antioxidants important in the diet?Basic understanding of an oxidant To understand what an antioxidant is, a person must first know what is meant by ‘oxidant’. After all, it makes sense that an antioxidant fights against oxidants. As it happens, confusion can begin right at this point.Our bodies function through the natural process of oxidation. Rust is an example of oxidation in which oxygen combines with iron. Oxidation in the body is the combination of oxygen with other molecules and substances. You can’t think or move unless oxidation takes place. In fact, that is why you need oxygen in order to survive. An oxidant, then, is anything that helps with the process of oxidation.Obviously, oxidation and oxidants are needed for health. The problem is really with a byproduct of oxidation called a “free radical”.Understanding free radicals Without getting too technical, a free radical is an atom, molecule, or a fragment of a molecule that has either too many or too few electrons. Free radicals are harmful and unstable. A single example of a free radical outside of the body is ozone, which has an extra atom of oxygen.The problem with free radicals is that they are so unstable that they seek out substances in the body to bond with so they can become stable. This is called “oxidative stress”. The free radicals basically try to snatch electrons wherever they can. This can and does cause tissue damage. It is exactly this process that causes butter to become rancid if it is left out at room temperature.There isn’t a way to avoid free radicals because they are produced naturally through normal processes. However, excessive numbers of free radicals cause aging, out of control cell reproduction (cancer), and cell damage. It might seem that there is nothing that can be done. This is where antioxidants become important.The role of antioxidants Antioxidants counteract free radicals. That is the overly simplified version of what is actually a very complex process in which free radicals are neutralized by giving them the electrons needed to make them stable.An antioxidant is an enzyme or nutrient that helps to prevent or counteract oxidative stress. Among the most commonly known antioxidants are vitamins C and E, and beta carotene. There are others as well.Fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, and whole grains are all high in antioxidants. Tomatoes and carrots are especially well known for containing antioxidants. The body also produces some antioxidants, but for them to work, the body needs iron, zinc, selenium, and manganese. All of these are present in tomatoes and carrots. However, if the diet is deficient in any of these, it probably isn’t producing enough antioxidants.Antioxidants are extremely important. Illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, memory loss, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and cataracts are all linked to having too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants in the body.The good news is that for most people, it isn’t hard to increase the amount of dietary antioxidants they consu

Source: What an Antioxidant is and Why it is Important

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