Antioxidants have become a health buzzword. And the media and many marketing departments have seized the opportunity to tout their many supposed health benefits, claiming antioxidants can prevent cancer, protect against heart disease, slow aging, and more.
But beyond all the hype, what are antioxidants? How important are they? And what are their provenhealth benefits?
Learn the truth about these compounds in food, and discover which antioxidant-rich foods will give you the most bang for your buck.
What Are Antioxidants? And How Do They Help Your Body?
To understand antioxidants, you first need to understand free radicals and oxidation.
Free radicals are oxygen molecules that have split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. As they seek out other electrons, they damage cells and DNA. Free radicals are created by a process known as oxidation.
Oxidation happens naturally as your cells process the oxygen you breathe and convert it into energy. It’s a chemical reaction that also produces free radicals.
Some free radicals are part of a healthy bodily system. They cause damage which your body naturally repairs. But when there are too many of them, they overwhelm your body’s natural repair processes and cause problems.
The trouble isn’t with free radicals, per se — it’s how many of them there are.
In addition to their natural presence in your body, free radicals are significantly increased by external factors, like fried foods, alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, pollutants in the air, and eating a poor diet. Basically, almost everything that’s bad for you can increase your free radical load.
The buildup of free radicals in your body is known as “oxidative stress.”
Oxidative stress is thought to be a leading cause of deterioration and disease, including memory loss, the breakdown of organs, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even wrinkles.
Brown spots on aging hands, for example, are due to oxidized fat underneath the skin.
And now, here’s where antioxidants come into play. They are the good guys in the fight against free radicals. They neutralize them by giving them the electrons they need.
Every day, your body creates free radicals, and you need to consume antioxidants in order to keep your system in balance.
A lack of antioxidants puts you at higher risk for a number of chronic diseases and other health issues. This is called “oxidative debt.”
What’s the Solution to Avoiding Oxidative Debt?
We need between 8,000 and 11,000 antioxidant units per day. But more than half of Americans don’t even get half the minimum required amount of antioxidants.
This deficiency may be part of the reason why oxidative-related diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, are so prevalent.
The solution seems simple enough: We need to consume more antioxidants.
What Are the Different Kinds of Antioxidants?
There are hundreds of substances that act as antioxidants. These include widely discussed nutrients, like vitamins, as well as less well-known ones, like flavonoids and polyphenols.
And not all antioxidants operate exactly the same way. Some antioxidants excel at fighting certain types of oxidants, while others are effective only in specific parts of your cells. And some antioxidants only work under the right conditions.
The human body naturally produces some antioxidants, such as melatonin, but most of them have to come from food.
While all foods contain some antioxidants, plant foods are the primary source. On average, plant foods contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal-based foods.
These are some of the key antioxidants you may want to include in your diet:
Vitamin E — While there are eight forms of the fat-soluble vitamin E, α-tocopherol is the most bioactive form of this antioxidant in humans. Top food sources include spinach, kiwi, tomatoes, dandelion greens, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, broccoli, and almonds.
Vitamin C — This crucial water-soluble antioxidant has actually been shown to regenerate other antioxidants. Top food sources include Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green and red peppers, cabbage, turnip greens, sweet and white potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash.
Beta-carotene — This fat-soluble red/orange plant pigment combines with other elements to form vitamin A in your body. Top food sources include carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, and apricots.
Lycopene — This fat-soluble antioxidant can mostly be found in red/pink-hued foods. The most significant source is tomatoes, but it’s also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, pink guava, papaya, and goji berries.
Selenium — This important antioxidant is actually a mineral, and it originates in soil, where it’s soaked up by growing plants. Top food sources include Brazil nuts, brown rice,mushrooms, oatmeal, and spinach.
Polyphenols — Another category of pigments, of which the largest group is called flavonoids. It includes subgroups like flavones (luteolin and apigenin), anthocyanidins (malvidin, pelargonidin, peonidin, and cyanidin), flavonones (hesperetin, eriodictyol, and naringenin), and isoflavones (genistein, glycitein, and daidzein). Top food sources include romaine lettuce, blueberries, celery, tomatoes, peaches, apples, garbanzo beans, pears, oranges, almonds, strawberries, and watermelon.
Omega-3 fatty acids — These polyunsaturated fatty acids come in three forms: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Some plant foods have ALA, but EPA and DHA are found mainly in fish and certain algae. The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, though the efficiency of conversion varies from person to person. Some people are efficient converters and may do just fine if they eat plenty of ALA. Others benefit from a direct form of DHA and EPA — whether from fish, fish oil or from an algae-based supplement. The foods highest in ALA are flax seeds (and flax oil) and chia seeds. ALA levels are also high in camelina oil, and there are moderate amounts in hemp seeds (and hemp oil), canola oil, and walnuts.
What Are the Real Health Benefits of Antioxidants?
Are we sure that antioxidants are good for you? Are there any studies to back it up?
Yes, there are. For example:
- A 2014 study published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry found that a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods from an early age can offer protection against age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma.
- A 2012 study published in the journal Dermato Endocrinology comparing skin anti-aging techniques found that the consumption of antioxidants through food can delay aging and improve skin condition.
- A 2014 analysis published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Carefound that dietary phytochemicals (most of which are antioxidants) can be beneficial for the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia/cognition issues.
- A 2016 study published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition concluded that higher fruit and vegetable intake (and therefore higher antioxidant intake) is a “powerful tool” in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, poor cognitive performance, and other diet-related diseases.
- A 2003 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that increased consumption of antioxidants led to “reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer disease, cataracts, and some of the functional declines associated with aging.”
If Antioxidants Are Beneficial, Are Antioxidant Supplements Worthwhile?