Antioxidants are powerful compounds found in nearly all food you eat, regardless of what some juice ads would have you believe. Antioxidants do exist in colorful fruits, but they can also be found in vegetables, nuts, grains, milk products, teas, legumes, spices, and herbs. Even certain meats, poultry, and fish contain antioxidants. No matter how healthy—or unhealthy—your diet is, you're consuming antioxidants.
So what do they do for you? Antioxidants can help your body defend itself against stress and decay. Certain antioxidants will make you look better from the inside out by protecting your eyes and skin from the damaging effects of sunlight. These potent compounds also decrease excess inflammation and soreness after a hard workout.
As you may have heard, antioxidants may help support overall health and exercise recovery.*
But here's what you might not know: Antioxidants are incredibly diverse in how they're structured and what they do. Even grouping them all under a single name is problematic. It's akin to grouping running shoes and cars under the same name just because they both help you move around.
Though we know they're vital to our health, science has barely scratched the surface on antioxidants. There are thousands of different types found in foods, yet only a tiny fraction of them have been identified. In many cases, scientists don't fully understand how the ones that have been discovered act in the human body. To make matters even more complicated, a single fruit or vegetable may contain over a hundred compounds, making it difficult to figure out what each one does.
Which Antioxidants Help You Train?
Several antioxidants have been singled out and studied extensively for their beneficial effects in relation to exercise and athletics. Of these, the plant-based pigments called "flavonoids" are probably the best-known. These include:
Anthocyanins are found in brightly colored red, purple, and blue produce. These are the nutrients that have made açai, blueberries, and blackberries into overnight celebs—and with good reason! Studies suggest that tart cherries--a rich source of anthocyanins--help support exercise recovery and a healthy inflammation response. When consumed daily, this juice alone has been suggested to support muscle health and keep muscles moving through their full range of motion.*
Flavonols are another class of flavonoid compounds known to have antioxidant properties. When writers and nutritionists rave about the health and performance benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, and green tea, part of that has to do with their flavonol content. One promising variety of flavonols is quercetin, which has been linked in studies to increases in endurance capacity and VO2 max in athletes.
Gingerol—the active ingredient in ginger—is a powerful antioxidant in its own right. Researchers at the University of Georgia discovered that fresh ginger and ginger spice may provide antioxidant support and promote a healthy inflammation response after eccentric exercise such as a hard bout of resistance training or downhill running.*
* Ratings as of article's date of publication
Too Much of a Good Thing
If you're tempted to take a shortcut to good health by popping high-dose antioxidant supplements instead of eating your fruits and veggies, consider this: Overloading on antioxidants could do as much harm as good.
Several studies have found that excessive doses of antioxidants don't prevent disease. In some cases they actually increased disease risk. For instance, two out of four long-term studies found high-dose beta-carotene supplements (20-30 mg per day) taken daily for several years increased lung cancer risk by 24 percent in smokers. How does 20-30 mg/day stack up? If you eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, you consume about 6-8 mg of beta-carotene. Vitamin E and selenium, two other crucial nutrients with antioxidant properties, have also been connected to increased cancer risk when taken at high doses.
But aside from any particular risks to certain populations, popping antioxidant pills like candy under the assumption that your body needs them in order to recover from exercise is simply mistaken. Remember free radicals, those compounds that damage your cells and are combatted by antioxidants? Well, it turns out that we actually need some free radicals in order for our muscles to produce force, and to build and repair muscle. Muscle cells come with their own regulatory network—an antioxidant defense system that lets free radicals do their job but reduces the likelihood that they will inflict lasting damage on your muscle.
Want to help your body recover from stress? Start simple: Eat better and sleep longer. Give your aching muscles what they want most!
Let's Hear it for Food
Does the remaining mystery surrounding antioxidants mean we're flying blind? Not quite. Two principles should guide your antioxidant intake:
First, ignore any boast that claims a food or supplement "contains more antioxidants than (fill in the blank)." Quantitative measurements of antioxidants are completely useless unless you're in a research lab. The total amount doesn't tell you anything about how well your body will absorb the antioxidant, nor what it does in your body.
Second, eat your fruit and vegetables. People who eat more antioxidant-rich foods such as vegetables and fruits have a decreased risk of developing serious diseases, including heart disease and cancer. It might be because of the antioxidant content in these foods, other compounds in them, or both. Or, it might be that these foods are simply part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
In either case, make sure they're part of your diet, because—for now at least—there's no substitute for them.