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Why You Need Antioxidants In Your Diet—And How To Eat More Of Them

Antioxidants are free-radical fighting compounds that can slow signs of aging. Learn how to find them and use them properly to reap their health benefits.

Antioxidants are having a moment in the health and nutrition world. From being dubbed as anti-aging to being a fertility cure, it is no wonder that antioxidant-rich foods are being labeled as a superfoods on packaging. But what do antioxidants really do in the body? And what are antioxidants anyways?

We'll start with a review of how antioxidants work, their health benefits, antioxidant-rich foods, and whether it's worth taking antioxidant supplements.

What are free radicals?

To understand what an antioxidant is, you first need to know what a free radical is. Free radicals are molecules that may attack important cells in the body, resulting in damage, or oxidative stress. The damage caused by oxidative stress may eventually result in conditions such as:

  • certain cancers
  • emphysema
  • asthma
  • hypertension
  • atherosclerosis
  • arthritis
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • cirrhosis
  • cataracts
  • macular degeneration

Data also suggests that too much oxidative stress may result in fertility challenges in both men and women.

Free radicals can come from external sources like smoking, eating fried food, or being exposed to pollutants found in places like the air or water. They may also come about naturally during normal bodily processes like exercise. A little oxidative stress is natural and needed for some bodily processes. The key is to not have too much oxidative stress, and one way to accomplish that is to consume enough antioxidants.

What are antioxidants and how do they work?

Antioxidants are molecules and vitamins that protect cells from the damage caused by these free radicals. They do this by reacting with the free radicals, which prevents free radicals from reacting with other beneficial molecules and cells.

Examples of antioxidants include:

  • anthocyanin
  • astaxanthin
  • beta-carotene
  • catechins
  • ellagic acid
  • polyphenols
  • quebecol
  • selenium
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E
  • zinc

What are the health benefits of antioxidants?

Antioxidants may combat the effects of oxidative stress, and thus the risk of developing the conditions mentioned above.

Large-scale studies have demonstrated that antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc can significantly influence the rates of some major diseases like cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

There are many antioxidants in existence, and certain antioxidants play specific roles in the body. Additionally, many antioxidants found naturally in food work together to have an effect in the body. For example, vitamin E and selenium work together to eliminate highly toxic components in the body. They depend on adequate amounts of each other to accomplish this task.

Thankfully, eating a balanced diet will supply your body with varying types and quantities of antioxidants. Studies have found that intake of antioxidants obtained from food have a protective effect in most cases.

Which foods contain antioxidants?

Antioxidants are naturally found in many foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Surprisingly, some are found in seafood, too!

Below are some foods that pack a punch when it comes to antioxidant content:

1. Blueberries

Antioxidants called anthocyanin are responsible for making blueberries have that gorgeous blue hue. These colorful berries are one of the best sources of antioxidants out there and pack a punch when it comes to nutrition.

Anthocyanins may help prevent many diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular illnesses, cancer, diabetes, and inflammation.

2. Seafood

Ever wonder what makes certain seafood have that beautiful pink shade? These underwater treasures are sources of the antioxidant astaxanthin which is responsible for that rosy shade. Accumulating evidence suggests that astaxanthin could be protective against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

While certain types of marine algae are the richest source of this powerful antioxidant, it is also found in lobster, shrimp, salmon, and rainbow trout.

3. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are the leading source of the antioxidant nutrient selenium in the produce aisle. Antioxidants like selenium protect body cells from damage that might lead to chronic diseases. Selenium plays many roles in the human body, including protecting it against negative effects of heavy metals, managing the proper functioning of the immune system, and reducing the risk of developing certain cancers.

One serving of white (button) mushrooms is a good source of selenium, and one serving of cremini or portabella mushrooms is an excellent source of the antioxidant.

4. Pulses

Pulses are a group of foods that include dry peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans. They are high in antioxidants, and offer a range of healthful qualities, including plant-based protein, fiber, folate, and potassium.

One of the richest sources of antioxidants is the red kidney bean, which provides more antioxidants per serving when compared with many other foods. Red kidney beans, as well as all pulses, can be considered a protein AND a vegetable due to their nutritional composition.

5. Walnuts

Walnuts have the highest amount of free and total antioxidant polyphenols among nuts. Animal research has shown that the compounds found in walnuts may be protective of brain signaling function, and offer motor and cognitive benefits.

The nutrients and bioactive compounds found in walnuts such as omega-3s, antioxidants like ellagic acid, or amino acids like tryptophan may play a protective effect on inflammation of the colon caused by digestive disorders.

6. Pears

Pears are a good source of vitamin C, one of the most well-known antioxidants. Each medium-sized pear contains approximately 7 milligrams, which is 10% of the daily value. Pears also naturally contain phytonutrients and other antioxidants, a variety of which are found in the vibrantly colored skins of different pear varieties. Choose a mix of colors for an added benefit.

7. Pure maple syrup from Canada

Antioxidants may not be the top of your mind when you think of maple syrup, but they should! Scientists have identified more than 67 different types of antioxidants called polyphenols in pure maple syrup, and nine of these are unique to only pure maple syrup. One of these polyphenols, named Quebecol, naturally forms when the sap is boiled to produce maple syrup. Quebecol has been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body.

Should you bother taking antioxidant supplements?

Studies have been conducted to determine whether antioxidant supplements could help prevent certain diseases. Unlike the data that suggests a positive relationship between dietary antioxidant intake and risk reduction of certain conditions, the same relationship doesn't apply when it comes to antioxidants in supplement form.

Well-designed clinical trials have focused on antioxidant intake and risk of developing certain diseases including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and cataracts. The majority of the data suggests that antioxidants in supplement form do not offer any risk reduction benefit like their food counterpart may.

One concerning note is that data from some studies actually suggest that some supplemental antioxidants if taken long-term (over two years) may actually increase one's risk of developing certain diseases. In one case, when beta carotene was supplemented in smokers, the risk of lung cancer actually increased. In other clinical trials focusing on men, vitamin E supplementation was associated with an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke and prostate cancer.

It is important to note that there are some data that suggests a positive relationship between antioxidant intake in supplement form and health outcomes, but the data is not as compelling as the data that focuses on antioxidants in food-form.

Bottom Line

Antioxidants that come from food sources have been linked to a slew of benefits for human health, but the same effect is not always seen when using the supplement counterpart. Focusing on antioxidant-rich food like fruit, veggies, and whole-grains will not only provide you with antioxidants, but you will also get the benefits of many other healthy features like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients in combination with the natural antioxidants may be the ticket to your overall health, not just popping a pill.

If you're considering antioxidant supplements, be sure to understand that a pill will never be a substitute for a healthy and balanced diet. Your supplement should be third-party certified, and your doctor should be aware of any over-the-counter pills that you are putting in your body.

Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, CPT
Lauren Manaker is an award-winning registered dietitian, book author, and recipe developer who has been in practice for almost 20 years. Read more about Lauren