The world of dietary nutrition is full of pitfalls that can prevent the average person from understanding what is really going on. While you would think that something as basic as eating would be a major focus of scientific research and that we would have a fairly complete understanding of what our bodies do and do not need, the truth is that there are a lot of competing ideas in this incredibly complex field of study. Because of the complexity we often give up trying to really understand what certain word mean and just take the word of scientists and nutritionists that they are good or bad. Antioxidants are a great example of this. When we hear that some food is rich in antioxidants we sort it into the “good” column and that is that. But what are antioxidants? What role do they play in nutrition? How much of them do we need?

What are antioxidants?

To understand what antioxidants are it is important to know a little something about atoms. Most of us know that atoms are the basic building blocks of everything in the universe. They are the Lego from which everything is built. Atoms have a nucleus which is surrounded by clouds of orbiting electrons, much like how the solar system has a sun that is orbited by planets. However, unlike the solar system, the atoms in our bodies are constantly being manipulated by our metabolisms. Atoms join together and are ripped apart forming big and small molecules all the time. These molecules are responsible for everything that goes on in our bodies.

Sometimes, though all the action changes some of the atoms. Occasionally an electron will get knocked loose and a previously stable atom will become unstable and electrically charged. We call these unstable atoms free radicals and they have the ability to damage cells and DNA and just generally wreak havoc. Sometimes that havoc is good, such as when our immune systems use free radicals to fight bacteria and viruses; but sometimes that havoc is very bad, such as when it damages DNA and impacts cell division.

That is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants contain atoms that have electrons to spare. They drift through our bodies providing electrons to free radicals, allowing them to be stable again.

Antioxidants and Nutrition

Obviously antioxidants are something we need. You don’t want an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants messing up your body chemistry, so what can you do to manage things properly. Well, you might be surprised to hear that virtually every food there is contains antioxidants. Nuts, berries, steak even fast food cheeseburgers will have some antioxidants. With nutrition though the goal is to have the good elements of our food outweigh the bad. With that in mind, a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables will provide the most effective influx of antioxidants to your body. You also might be happy to learn that coffee provides more antioxidants to the average American’s diet than any other food item, but that is mostly because the average person doesn’t eat enough fruits and veggies.

What about supplements?

Given the benefits of antioxidants, you might be tempted to run out and buy a dietary supplement to make sure you get enough of them. Keep in mind, however that it is all about balance. Foods containing antioxidants also contain thousands of other compounds that work together to lead to positive health outcomes. Supplements often lack these complimentary compounds and can sometimes do more harm than good.

Now that you know a little something about one of nutrition’s great buzzwords, go forth and prosper. Next time some newspaper article or food packaging boasts about its antioxidant content, think of the atoms in your body and what that actually means. Try to add some berries, green tea, or dark chocolate to your diet (all loaded with antioxidants), and enjoy your morning coffee on a whole new level.