Antioxidants: Cleaning up Your Body’s City Streets

The word Antioxidants is tattooed everywhere we shop for foodfrom cereal boxes and sports drinks to waters and nutmilks—you’d think consuming them would lead to immortality. But through all this antioxidant hype from food marketers, there’s one question that comes to my mind:

What in the hell is an antioxidant?

As a registered dietitian, I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about nutrition. The technical definition of antioxidant should probably be stored in my permanent dietetic memory banks. But the fact is, it isn’t. Ever since I’ve become a parent of twins and turned 40-something, my memory bank only seems to store information it has to. So when I want to remember something scientific or technical, I make a point to translate the complexities into information that’s easy—and more fun—to understand.

That said, antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in food that help protect our cells from things called free radicals. Free radicals are troublemakers. They pollute our body, cause disease, and make us age faster—and no one likes that. Think of them as vandals, terrorists, and criminals. They roam around our body’s streets, carrying guns, knives, sledgehammers, steel pipes, and bottles of spray paint, damaging our cells and DNA, and causing a myriad of diseases—like heart disease and cancer.

The antioxidants, on the other hand, do the opposite. Think of them as your body’s police squad and construction crew. Like the police, they cruise around, patrolling the body, and arresting the free radical thugs from smashing through windows or blowing up buildings. They are also like construction workers because they repair everything the free radicals destroy—kind of like how a construction crew fills potholes, fixes broken down power lines, or adds a fresh coat of paint to old, graffiti-laden buildings.

Antioxidants are the good guys—the Avengers to our Thanos. You can find them in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans. They come in many identities, including: vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, quercetin, catechins, and anthocyanins (just to name a few).

So eat more salads, grill more vegetables, snack on mixed nuts, and hork down fruit instead of candy bars. The more colors you eat, the more diverse your antioxidant supply, and the more superheroes you’ll have to fight off the bad guys. You probably won’t achieve eternal life, but you might just live a little longer to enjoy the many fruits that life has to offer.

That is the simplest way I can define an antioxidant. I may have left out some details, but I think it’s close enough—unless we’re obsessed with biological and physiological systems and want to dig into the science, which is probably interesting. But for me, I’m saving space in my brain for other things.

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