There isn’t a good way to describe antioxidants without first describing what they take care of in the body. Antioxidants are a defense system against free radicals. Scientifically, free radicals are molecules which have at least 1 unpaired electron. That one little lonely electron can cause a whole host of problems in the body if it’s left unpaired – typically known as oxidative stress. Think of it like this – a free radical is like a toddler, running butt naked around the house. The antioxidant is the parent who comes in, scoops him up, and puts him back to bed.
Scientists have been studying the effect of antioxidants on athletes, because exercise can induce free radicals. The more free radicals, the more oxidative stress, the more symptoms such as fatigue, impaired immunity, and muscle damage can occur. Essentially, the more you exercise, the more you damage yourself, but at the same time, exercise can create a plethora of beneficial effects for your body. The thought is, can science take away a piece of this exercise paradox, that exercise induces negative oxidative effects, but still provide only the beneficial parts through increased antioxidant intake.
Which foods provide high levels of antioxidants? The easiest way to identify them is to look for colors! Add colors to your athletic diet: red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, kale, spinach, and plenty of others. Antioxidant supplementation is not necessarily needed if you are eating about 2 to 3 cups of fruit and 3 to 4 cups of vegetables a day.
What the studies have found is that individuals with high antioxidants tend to have less oxidative stress than sedentary folks who are untrained, but had the same diet. More interestingly, what they also found was that athletes with poor diets had the same oxidative stress as untrained individuals. Long story short, a balanced diet and exercise will get you farther than just diet or just exercise alone.