There are hundreds, if not thousands, of substances that act as antioxidants.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
June 10, 2021
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You've probably seen the word "antioxidant" referenced hundreds of times in food and nutrition articles and advertising. A Google search of the term generates a staggering 132 million results. But what exactly are antioxidants, how do they benefit your health, and what are the best ways to consume them? Here's a primer on antioxidant basics.

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Credit: AdobeStock

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are molecules present in the body and found in plant-based foods that counteract oxidative stress. In a nutshell, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counter their harmful effects.

Free radicals form as a byproduct of normal metabolism and in response to exercise, sun exposure, and environmental pollutants like smog and cigarette smoke. The oxidative stress triggered by free radicals damages healthy cells and is thought to play a role in a variety of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and heart disease. Oxidative stress also negatively affects aging.

Antioxidants essentially serve as bodyguards to protect healthy cells from free radical attacks. By doing so, they help maintain proper physiological function and guard your health.

Top sources of antioxidants

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of substances that act as antioxidants, from vitamin C to flavonoids and polyphenols. A wide range of plant-based foods provide antioxidants, so they're easy to come by. Some of the top sources include berries, cocoa, herbs and spices, beans, artichokes, apples, nuts and seeds, cherries, dark leafy greens, coffee and tea, whole grains, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, avocado, and pomegranate.

How to boost your antioxidant intake

To take in a broader spectrum of antioxidants, as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, aim for a variety of plant-based food groups of different colors. I advise my clients to build five cups of veggies and two cups of fruit into each day's worth of meals. For example, include one cup of veggies at breakfast, two at lunch and two at dinner, in addition to a cup of fruit at breakfast, and another as part of a daily snack.

Another way to up your antioxidant intake is to replace processed foods with whole, plant-based foods. Trade a breakfast pastry for a bowl of 'zoats' (zucchini oatmeal) topped with fruit and nuts. In place of a sandwich or wrap, go for a bowl made with a generous base of greens topped with beans, brown rice, and seasoned guacamole. Snack on fruit with nuts or seeds, or veggies with hummus. Satisfy your sweet tooth with dark chocolate. Sprinkle cinnamon into your morning coffee, and infuse water or tea with antioxidant-rich herbs and bits of fruit. It's impossible to take in too many antioxidants from whole foods. Plus, choosing antioxidant-rich foods can elevate the overall nutritional quality of your diet.

Too many antioxidants via supplements could be harmful

The goal isn't to load up on as many antioxidants as possible, though. There are high-dose antioxidant supplements out there, but they aren't the best way to protect your body. In fact, some research has linked the use of high-dose beta-carotene supplements to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Taking high-dose supplements of the antioxidant vitamin E has been associated with an increased risk of both hemorrhagic stroke (a type of stroke caused by bleeding in the brain) and prostate cancer.

The best way to consume antioxidants is in whole, plant-based foods. This is partly because antioxidants work in synergy with one another and with other bioactive compounds. In other words, they're one ingredient in a complex recipe for health protection.

Bottom line on antioxidants

Antioxidants are an important aspect of proactive nutrition and may help to fend off aging and chronic disease. For these reasons, they may help you look and feel better. But antioxidants aren't a cure-all, and they shouldn't be used in supplement form to treat a medical condition without the supervision of your doctor. To best reap the benefits of antioxidants, source them from whole foods or products made from whole food ingredients-it's also the most delicious and satisfying way to get your daily dose.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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