Look up any nutrition blog for sports performance or body composition and no doubt it will talk about protein, and carbohydrates, and protein, and fat, and protein, and calories, and protein, and fiber, and pro…well, you get the picture. And it’s true that these things are important, but really they are just part of a larger picture. A picture that includes vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, probiotics, and antioxidants. And while all these parts of the picture are important in their own ways, here I’d like to focus on why antioxidants are so crucial to health and performance.
First, let’s look at what an antioxidant is. I’m sure you’ve heard of antioxidants and how they are a part of a healthy diet, but beyond that, what are they? Well, antioxidants are molecules that donate electrons to other unstable molecules. These unstable molecules are called free radicals and are created through oxidation. The instability of free radicals is problematic because it produces cellular damage and impairs cell function.
Fortunately, free radicals can be stabilized via antioxidants, thereby reducing cellular damage and promoting cellular health. It’s important to note that cellular health means overall health, after all our body is comprised largely of cells and the health of each individual cell reflects the health of the whole body. This influence correlates to disease states, aging, and general functioning of the systems of the body. In fact, increased consumption of antioxidants has been shown to have a positive correlation with neurological function, cardiovascular function, and cancer prevention.1,2,3,4,5 This in and of itself is reason enough to consume antioxidants in the diet. But come on, you’re here to get stronger and look good naked, right?
Well, antioxidants are important for that too! You see, exercise creates oxidative stress within the cell. Yes, exercise is a good thing, but it does produce metabolic byproducts, some of which are free radicals, within the cell that can lead to cellular damage. These byproducts are a result of the normal functioning of the mitochondria.
If you remember allllllllllll the way back to biology (no, I’m not calling you old), the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and just like most things that produce power, it also creates byproducts that must be stabilized for optimal cell health. Exercise increases the amount of free radicals produced by virtue of increased mitochondrial output and this can impair muscle cell function.
In fact, “growing evidence indicates that reactive oxygen species [free radicals] can contribute to both the initiation and the progression of muscle fiber injury, which may lead to decreased muscle contractile ability and force production and, as a consequence, to impaired muscle performance.”6 Meaning, free radicals damage muscle fibers, impair function, and interfere with recovery. Luckily antioxidants help stabilize these free radicals and preserve cell health and actually increase the speed of recovery in muscle fibers. That’s great news, right? Now all we need is to figure out where the heck we can get these antioxidants.
Worry not, I won’t leave you hanging. Plus, you already know the answer, but let’s continue to bring this thing full circle. Certain antioxidants are produced within the body (endogenous) and others are consumed from sources outside the body (exogenous). The major endogenous antioxidant is glutathione. Some people call this “the master antioxidant” and it is produced using precursors found in a diet rich in nutrient dense foods. For example, sulfurous veggies like broccoli and brussel sprouts, selenium rich foods, B vitamins, as wells as C and E, and amino acids are all used to produce glutathione. Meaning eating a diet rich in these nutrients will give the body the building blocks to produce this important antioxidant.
Getting exogenous antioxidants is also important. Fruits and veggies of all colors provide an array of antioxidants. In fact, the color of many fruits and vegetables is the result of the antioxidants it contains, therefore you should eat a variety of colors of fruits and veggies. “Eat the rainbow,” as some people say. Also, eat seasonally. Go to the PSU farmers market (after your workout at Hyatt Training of course) and grab what’s in season. Farmers markets force you to buy a variety of fruits and veggies based on the season and this is good so you don’t get stuck in the broccoli-every-night-of-the-week-rut. Find something that you’ve never tried every time you go. Buy it, take it home, Google what the heck to do with it. It isn’t rocket science and it will make planning, cooking, and eating way more fun and interesting. Plus it will give you the antioxidants necessary to recover from that workout you did this morning.
The bottom line…
Antioxidants are an important part of a healthy diet for everyone, but especially athletes. The oxidative stress that athletes produce needs to be mitigated through the consumption of nutrient dense foods that provide the building blocks for antioxidants and the antioxidants themselves. These nutrients will help you reach your health and fitness goals and make you look and feel great.
When cooking broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, or other cruciferous veggies, chop them up and set aside for 5 minutes before cooking to increase their antioxidant content. This process occurs due to an enzymatic reaction produced by an enzyme called myrosinase that is contained in the cell walls of cruciferous veggies. This enzyme converts glucosinolates into isothiocyanates and this reaction takes time and oxygen, hence the chopping and setting aside for 5 minutes. This increases the isothiocyanate content in the chopped veggies and these antioxidants have been positively correlated with numerous beneficial health outcomes. So, chop, set aside for 5 minutes, cook, eat, and smile.
Recipe: Roasted Maitake Mushrooms On A Bed Of Microgreens
1 lbs. Maitake mushrooms (cut into strips)
1 bag microgreens (usually sold in ziplock bags at the PSU farmers market)
¼ cup olive oil (half for salad, half for mushrooms)
2 tbsp. Apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp. mustard
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano (stripped and chopped)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
This is a quick easy weeknight dinner that can be thrown together after work. The mushrooms and microgreens can be found at the PSU Farmers Market on Saturdays, so plan ahead.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut maitake mushrooms into strips and toss them in a bowl with ⅛ cup olive oil, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 15 minutes, making sure not to overcook them. While the mushrooms are cooking, wash the microgreens and set aside. Make a homemade salad dressing with the remaining olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, and a dash of salt and pepper. Whisk together and dress microgreens. Serve alongside the maitake mushrooms when they are finished. I like to have this with a baked purple sweet potato and a protein. Simple, easy, and delicious.
1 Sita G, Hrelia P, Tarozzi A, Morroni F. Isothiocyanates Are Promising Compounds against Oxidative Stress, Neuroinflammation and Cell Death that May Benefit Neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s Disease. Int J Mol Sci. 2016;17(9)
2 Kent K, Charlton KE, Netzel M, Fanning K. Food-based anthocyanin intake and cognitive outcomes in human intervention trials: a systematic review. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2016;
3 Kishimoto Y, Yoshida H, Kondo K. Potential Anti-Atherosclerotic Properties of Astaxanthin. Mar Drugs. 2016;14(2)
4 Naponelli V, Ramazzina I, Lenzi C, Bettuzzi S, Rizzi F. Green Tea Catechins for Prostate Cancer Prevention: Present Achievements and Future Challenges. Antioxidants (Basel). 2017;6(2)
5 Tse G, Eslick GD. Cruciferous vegetables and risk of colorectal neoplasms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Cancer. 2014;66(1):128-39.
6 Jówko E. Green Tea Catechins and Sport Performance. In: Lamprecht M, editor. Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2015. Chapter 8. Available from: https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.nunm.idm.oclc.org/books/NBK299060/
Author Dustin Millhollen is a personal trainer and nutritionist at Hyatt Training. He holds an MS in Nutrition from National University of Natural Medicine and a CSCS from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Learn more about Dustin, or get in touch with him by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
At Hyatt Training, your optimal health and wellness is our #1 goal. We blend art and science to create programs that are applicable to life and sport. We bring together strength and conditioning, cardiovascular health, yoga and nutrition to deliver a comprehensive lifetime health and wellness strategy made just for you. If you liked this article, you may also like some of our other posts about nutrition, stress management and holistic health.