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What Are Antioxidants?What Are Antioxidants?


What Are Antioxidants?

Scientific terms like antioxidant are used to describe foods and their health benefits, but sometimes with little explanation. You likely know that special plant nutrients help to protect you against disease, but how this occurs may be less clear. When you gain a better understanding of which foods provide valuable nutrients and how these nutrients work, it’s easier to make healthy eating a priority.

The role of antioxidants.

Free radicals are molecules in the body that damage cells and may increase your risk for disease. Free radicals result from converting food to energy, performing exhausting exercise, and exposure to elements in the environment, such as smoke and pollution. Antioxidants are important because they bind to these free radicals preventing their ability to damage cells, potentially improving health.

Types of antioxidants.

There are four major vitamins and minerals that are classified as antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A in the body). In addition to these main nutrients, there are many phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that also act as antioxidants. Some examples of phytonutrient categories include flavonoids and polyphenols. The phytonutrients within all these categories are numerous. There more than 600 known carotenoids alone. Each food source for antioxidants has a unique set of these phytonutrients and scientists regularly discover new compounds and health benefits.

Top food sources for antioxidants.

Getting antioxidants from food is preferred over loading up on supplements. Research on the effectiveness of these supplements is mixed and it is possible to get too much of these vitamins and minerals, which can lead to toxicity. By eating a variety of foods, you can ensure a healthy balance of antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources along with nuts, legumes, and whole grains. The United States Department of Agriculture has conducted research on the antioxidant capacity of over 100 foods. Results for the top fruits include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, and cherries. The top vegetables include kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli florets, beets, red bell peppers, onions, corn, and eggplant.


Lori Rice, M.S., is a nutritional scientist and author with a passion for healthy cooking, exercise physiology, and food photography.
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