We hear about them everywhere these days: antioxidant-rich beverages and supplements are all the rage. But what do antioxidants even do for us? And do we need to be supplementing them through these products?
In this article we’re diving into what antioxidants are, how you can get them, and why exercise and a clean diet is really the best antioxidant there is.
What are antioxidants?
The universe is made up of atoms. When two or more atoms link together, we get molecules. Our bodies have hundreds of thousands of molecules – think DNA, proteins, fats, carbohydrates.
If one of those molecules loses an electron, we end up with a free radical. Those free radicals can cause damage within the body.
That’s where antioxidants come in and save the day. Antioxidants mitigate the damage free radicals can do to our bodies.
However, not all free radicals are bad. In fact, your immune system uses free radicals to help fight bacteria and keep you healthy.
But because free radicals can cause damage, we want to maintain a healthy balance of antioxidants with free radicals in our bodies in order to stay our healthiest selves.
What causes excess free radicals in the body?
There are several environmental and lifestyle factors that can increase the number of free radicals in our body.
Air pollution, dietary toxins, sunburns, high alcohol intake, excess sugar consumption, and overly processed foods are all contributors here.
How does all of this relate to exercise?
Antioxidants help our body adapt to training. Training adaptations ultimately make us stronger and faster.
More specifically, antioxidants help prevent free radical-induced tissue damage, which is particularly beneficial to athletes and their training.
However, this is only true if you’re getting antioxidants in the proper dosage. Believe it or not, too high a dosage of antioxidants right after a training session will actually combat your training adaptations.
This is because your body needs that perfect balance of free radicals and antioxidants. Too many on either side of the scale and you lose the benefits of both.
A good balance of antioxidants to free radicals will help your tissue and muscles adapt to your training so that you grow stronger.
Not all antioxidants are created equal.
While antioxidants have a positive effect in their ability to mitigate free radical damage, not all antioxidants are created equal.
Many sports drinks high in vitamin C and vitamin E will be very high in antioxidants. In theory, this is great for our training adaptations and muscle recovery.
However, be careful that you’re not actually inducing the opposite effect due to other ingredients in the sports drink. Excessive sugar, which many sports drinks contain, can contribute to increased free radical damage.
Instead, aim to get your antioxidants from whole foods. In particular, look for foods that are high in vitamins C, A, and E.
Any and all berries are excellent sources of antioxidants: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries.
Some other great whole food antioxidant sources are leafy greens such as kale, spinach, chard; other greens like sea algae, chlorella, and spirulina; and dark chocolate.
When to supplement antioxidants?
With all of this said, there is a time and a place for antioxidant supplements.
A good example of a time when you should take an antioxidant supplement is if you are not eating a very healthy or clean diet.
If you are eating a lot of processed, packaged foods, you are likely not getting the vitamins you need to combat free radical damage.
If you are supplementing antioxidants, take them well after you work out. Avoid taking them right before, during, or right after a workout.
Exercise: the best antioxidant there is.
No matter what you may have read or heard, there currently is not any science telling us we need to supplement antioxidants. Unless, as stated above, your diet is poor and you’re not getting the vitamins you need to combat free radical damage.
That’s why exercise is, right now, the best antioxidant there is. Exercise and fitness training showcases the need for a healthy diet.
Eating clean, whole foods makes the world of difference in your training. And the more you exercise, the more you’ll need to make better decisions in the kitchen if you want to keep improving.
In fact, studies show that exercising leads people to make better food choices. And it makes sense. We want to see results in our training, and those results are largely made in the kitchen.
So if you stay on top of your exercise regimen and continue to work toward your fitness goals, the current science tells us that you will likely meet your antioxidant needs.
And if you find that you are not getting in those berries or leafy greens, try to work them into your meals. Smoothies are a great way to incorporate both berries and greens into your diet.
Antioxidant supplements should be your fall-back, perhaps for when you are traveling and don’t have ready access to healthy foods.
So there you have it. Good habits invite good habits. Often times, it is easier to find an effective training plan than it is to develop clean eating habits.
But as we’ve mentioned, that exercise plan will likely make eating clean much easier. And because antioxidants are best consumed through those clean whole foods, exercise is an easy way to be sure your antioxidant needs are met.
If you’d rather start in the kitchen and work your way to the gym, talk to a nutritionist. Allow them to help you make a plan you’ll stick to. And from there, work in the exercise through a proper training plan.
No matter which order you go in, meet your antioxidant needs to be sure that antioxidants are helping your training and making you the best athlete you can be.