When you hear the word “antioxidant,” you might think healthy. But do you know what it really does? You probably take a multivitamin each day, but do you understand how all of the nutrients listed on the label help your body and serve as antioxidants? Too many unfamiliar terms related to antioxidants—and nutrition in general—are thrown around on labels and educational materials, and in the media. However, few people know what they all mean and how they can help or hurt their athletic performances. Here’s a breakdown of antioxidant-related terms you hear or read about, but might be unsure of what they really do.
Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, which our bodies create when they produce energy. The harder we exercise or train, the more free radicals we create. Environmental factors—such as air pollution, the sun, cigarette smoke and herbicides—also spawn these damaging molecules, which can lead to cancer. Antioxidants interact with and stabilize free radicals to help prevent some damage.
Because you are an athlete, you are more active and therefore need more antioxidants. A daily vitamin is one source, but don’t forget fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and some meats, poultry and fish. Following is a list of common antioxidants and foods that provide them.
Vitamin A has three main forms: vitamin A1, A2 and A3. Foods rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese.
Beta-carotene is found in many orange foods, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin and mangos. Some green leafy vegetables, like collard greens, spinach, and kale, are also beta-carotene-rich.
Lutein is mostly associated with healthy eyes. Leafy green vegetables like the aforementioned are lutein-rich.
Lycopene is a potent antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit and blood oranges, among other foods. An estimated 85 percent of Americans’ lycopene intake comes from tomatoes and tomato-based products.
Many citrus fruits [e.g., oranges and grapefruits], a few vegetables [e.g., green peppers], beef, poultry and fish are all abundant in vitamin C, which is also called ascorbic acid.
Selenium—a mineral, not an antioxidant nutrient—is a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods such as rice and wheat are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries. In the U.S., however, animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscles.
Vitamin E, also known as alpha-tocopherol, is found in almonds and many oils, including wheat germ, safflower, corn and soybean oils. Mangos, nuts and broccoli are other good sources.
Amanda Carlson, MS, RD, Director of performance nutrition and research, Athletes’ Performance, Tempe, Ariz. serves as an advisory board member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. She also evaluates current research for the American Dietetic Association’s Evidence Based Library.