If you’re a label reader, you’ve probably seen the term antioxidants on your bottle of vitamins or orange juice. Have you ever wondered just what are antioxidants and why you need them? Don’t worry, antioxidants are not something mysterious that a mad scientist cooked up in a dark laboratory. Although they can be synthetic (manufactured in a lab), antioxidants are naturally occurring substances that are very good for you.
What are Antioxidants?
Your body consists of trillions of cells and antioxidants protect these cells from free radicals. Free radicals are harmful substances which cause damage to your body’s cells. They are the by-products of breaking down food into energy and also breaking down medicines. Free radicals can also come from pollutants in our environment.
Free radicals also go by another name: oxidants. They damage cells and tissues through oxidation. You see oxygen reacting everyday in two ways — fire and rust. Free radicals contain reactive oxygen which interact with your cells in a similarly harmful way.
According to health and nutrition experts, damage caused by free radicals may contribute to cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. But, all is not lost. Antioxidants protect your cells from free radicals and their harm.
Which Foods contain Antioxidants?
Antioxidants include a variety of substances found in food, such as vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids. Overall, the best food sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables each day will ensure you maximize your antioxidant intake. Fresh fruits and vegetables generally contain more antioxidants than processed fruits and vegetables. For example, eat an apple with the peel instead of applesauce.
Here are a few of the most common antioxidants in each group and good sources of each.
Vitamin A: Foods high in vitamin A are apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, collard greens, grapefruit, mango, romaine, spinach, sweet potato, tomato, watermelon.
Vitamin C: Foods high in vitamin C include bell peppers, blackberries, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, kiwi, lemon, lime, oranges, papaya, spinach, summer squash, strawberries, sweet potato, tomatoes.
Vitamin E: Foods high in vitamin E are sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, beet greens, canned pumpkin, red peppers, asparagus, swordfish, avocado, mango, peanut butter.
Selenium: Foods high in selenium include organ meats, seafood, dairy products, Brazil nuts, and plants grown in selenium-rich soil.
Flavonoids are substances found only in plant foods. There are 5 groups of flavonoids, based on their structure: flavanones, flavones, flavonols, flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins and isoflavones. Foods high in flavonoids include apples (in the skin), cabbage, dark chocolate (not milk chocolate), citrus fruits, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, red grapes, oregano, and parsley.
Should I Use Supplements?
You probably do not need to take antioxidant supplements. The research is conflicting. While some studies have shown a benefit to taking antioxidant supplements, many failed to show any benefit. And some studies have even found that taking antioxidant supplements may have caused harm.
Until we have more evidence, most experts recommend you consume your antioxidants from foods instead of supplements.
Ways to Increase Your Intake of Antioxidants
- Snack on raw fruit or veggies, such as red grapes, apples with the peel, or carrot sticks.
- Add fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries to your smoothie.
- Drink a cup of hot tea or a glass of iced tea (unsweetened) daily.
- Have a spinach salad before your evening meal.
- Sprinkle herbs and spices on your foods, such as oregano, parsley, turmeric, and cinnamon.
- Add nuts to salads, cereals, and oatmeal.
- Snack on trail mix made with nuts and apricots. Sprinkle it with cinnamon.
- Add avocado to salads or spread mashed avocado on toast.
The Bottom Line
In the simplest terms, antioxidants are substances found in foods that protect our cells against damage. The best way to increase your intake of antioxidants is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables every day.