Antioxidants are compounds that protect your cells. But to understand why antioxidants are good for you, you first need to know about free radicals.
Free radicals are compounds that come from pollution, tobacco smoke, UV rays, additives and preservatives in processed foods and common bacteria and viruses. Your body also produces free radicals during natural processes like digestion and even breathing.
Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that seek out and pair up with healthy cells to make themselves whole. That process weakens and damages the healthy cells and their DNA.
Too many free radicals floating around robbing your healthy cells causes oxidative stress. Just like in metals where oxidation causes rust, in our bodies, it can upset our cells and lead to disease.
The good news: Antioxidants move around your body and stabilize these pesky intruders so your cells can stay in their happy, balanced state. Antioxidants should come from food and not supplements.
“Antioxidants prevent or slow down damage to our body by helping get rid of free radicals,” says Lindsey Wohlford, Employee Wellness dietitian at MD Anderson. She filled us in on some important facts about antioxidants.
Antioxidants are easy to find
This is perhaps the best thing about antioxidants; they are in almost every piece of fruit and every vegetable in your grocery store. They’re even in some herbs and spices.
You don’t need to limit yourself to so called “superfoods.” There are so many different types of antioxidants, eating only a few foods would restrict your access to them all.
Antioxidants are found in berries, oranges, onions, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, bell peppers, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, corn, leafy green vegetables, rice, whole grains, the list goes on.
“The key to getting all the antioxidants you need is variety,” says Wohlford. “Eat many different types of whole, fresh foods.”
Some of your favorite treats have antioxidants
Not all sources of antioxidants are in the produce section. They are also found in tea and coffee.
Perhaps the best news is that dark chocolate is a reliable source of antioxidants. It contains several from a group called flavonoids. Studies have shown they can help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Always check for high cocoa content to maximize the benefits and minimize health drawbacks from fat and sugar.
Antioxidants should come from food, not supplements
If you want to get more antioxidants into your diet, Wohlford says choose healthy foods over supplements.
Research has shown that antioxidant supplements do not lower your risk of disease. In fact, some supplements can cause overdoses of antioxidants that can actually increase your risk of cancer.
Eating fruits and vegetables has been proven to reduce your risk of disease.
“You can’t really take a supplement,” says Wohlford, “Research shows that there are other components in foods that may make antioxidants more effective.”
Antioxidants are not a cure-all
Eating a plant-based diet is your best bet for getting all the fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need to reduce your cancer risk.
Fill two-thirds of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Fill the remaining one-third or less with lean protein.
“We’re not going to remove all risk from free radicals,” says Wohlford, “But by eating food high in antioxidants, we can reduce the damage and hopefully the risk of disease.”