The Health Benefits of Antioxidant-Rich Foods

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Unseen battles go on inside you every day. Your body’s cells constantly make toxic waste molecules called free radicals, which arise when cells are exposed to oxygen. This occurs during normal body processes, such as when food is changed into energy. Free radicals are also made when you exercise or are exposed to sunlight, air pollution, cigarette smoke, or alcohol.

In theory, free radicals can trigger a chain reaction that damages your cells and DNA. This may contribute to aging and several diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cataracts, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Fortunately, you can combat free radicals. Antioxidants found in many foods can stop these harmful molecules and limit the potential damage to your cells. Antioxidants chemically neutralize toxic free radicals and protect healthy tissues.

Finding antioxidants in food

Many foods contain a huge array of antioxidants. Here are some important ones and where to find them:

  • Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, peanut butter, green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, and vegetable oils, such as soy, sunflower, and canola oils

  • Vitamin C: Kale, cauliflower, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, oranges, strawberries, kiwifruit, and cantaloupe

  • Beta-carotene: Sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, apricots, cantaloupe, papaya, and kale, spinach, and other leafy green vegetables

  • Lutein: Papaya, oranges, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and collards

  • Polyphenols: Green tea, grapes, wine, berries, apples, and whole grains

  • Isoflavones: Soybeans and soy products, including tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and edamame

  • Isothiocyanates: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale

  • Selenium: Grains, nuts, legumes, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and cheese

Supplements versus food

Most studies have not shown that taking antioxidant supplements helps prevent disease. On the other hand, many studies show that eating fruits and vegetables reduces the risk for several diseases. Foods contain a mix of antioxidants and many other healthy substances. This may partly explain why antioxidant-rich foods, but not supplements, reduce the risk for disease. 

In addition, although antioxidants in food bring health benefits, high-dose antioxidant supplements may be risky. For instance, taking high doses of beta-carotene has been linked to an increased risk for lung cancer in smokers. High-dose vitamin E supplements have been shown to increase the risk for prostate cancer and stroke.

Bottom line: Your best bet for preventing disease is to consume a balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

  • Aim for at least 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables every day.

  • Make sure at least half of your grain servings are whole grains.

With these healthy choices, you can give your cells the power to fend off the damage caused by free radicals.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 28, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Antioxidants: What You Need to Know. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/food-nutrition/nutrients/antioxidants-wh...
  2. Antioxidants and Health: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm
  3. Phytochemicals: The Cancer Fighters in the Foods We Eat. American Institute for Cancer Research. http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/PageServer?pagename=elements_phytochemicals
  4. The Color of Prevention. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/myacs/illinois/programsandservices/the-color-of-prevention
  5. Make Half Your Grains Whole. U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/downloads/TenTips/DGTipsheet4MakeHalfYourGrainsWhole.pdf
  6. Antioxidants. American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6792#.UPCMT6zhcng
  7. Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Vitamin-and-Mineral-Supplements_UCM_306...

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