Antioxidants are substances that protect the body by neutralizing unstable molecules called free radicals. They develop when atoms in the body gain or lose charged particles called electrons.
Free radicals aren’t all bad. They play an important role in many biological processes including cell division. They also help cells talk to each other and they help your body defend against infection.
But when too many free radicals build up in the body, they can do serious damage to cells. This may contribute to conditions like cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
People tend to talk about antioxidants as a broad category, but they’re actually more of a big family. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and so are Vitamin E and Vitamin A. There are many more, each with their own benefits.
Health Benefits of Antioxidants
Because antioxidants have the power to neutralize free radicals, they can lower your odds of some diseases.
Here are some of the ways they can help:
They could help prevent cancer. Some research suggests that antioxidants can prevent some of the damage free radicals cause that can lead to cancer. But more research is needed to determine whether antioxidants from foods can help to reduce people’s risk of cancer.
They could help your eyes. Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the most common cause of permanent vision loss in adults over age 60. It happens when the macula, important tissue deep in the back of your eye, begins to wear away. In time, it can lead to loss of your central vision field.
Antioxidants may help to lower your chances of AMD by up to 25%. If you already have AMD, they can help you keep more of your vision.
Vitamins C and E, both antioxidants, can lower the chance of cataracts. These are protein build-ups that cloud the lens at the front of the eye, ultimately causing blurry vision. Antioxidants may also slow the progression of cataracts, letting people maintain better vision longer.
They could help your heart. There’s a lot of debate about whether antioxidants help lower people’s chances of heart disease. On one hand, research has shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower risks of heart disease and stroke. Early research has shown that antioxidants may be responsible for this benefit.
On the other hand, follow-up studies of antioxidant supplements have failed to show the same benefits. Some scientists believe that this has to do with the higher concentrations of antioxidants in supplements.
Getting antioxidants from foods may be the secret, but more research is needed to find out if there’s a real connection.
Things to Consider
While antioxidants have loads of potential health benefits, there are a few things to keep in mind about them, particularly if you get yours through supplements.
If you take antioxidant supplements, there's a chance that they could interact with medicines that you're taking for another condition.
If you smoke, and you take high doses of beta-carotene, your chances of lung cancer go up. If you take a lot of vitamin E, you have a higher chance of prostate cancer and stroke.
Talk with your doctor about all the medications and supplements you take. They'll help you make sure that what you take will be safe for you.
Where to Find Antioxidants
Different foods contain different antioxidant vitamins and minerals.
Beta-carotene is abundant in orange foods like:
- Sweet potatoes
Some green leafy vegetables also contain high levels of beta-carotene, including:
- Collard greens
These vegetables also contain high levels of the antioxidant lutein.
Lycopene is in fruits and vegetables with pink and red or red-orange flesh. Examples include:
- Pink grapefruit
Approximately 85% of lycopene in most American diets comes from tomatoes and tomato-derived foods.
Vitamin A comes in three different forms, the best-known being retinol (vitamin A1). You’ll find high levels of vitamin A in foods like:
- Sweet potatoes
- Egg yolks
Vitamin C is present in high concentrations in many fruits and vegetables as well as in:
- Some cereals
Vitamin E is particularly abundant in almonds. You can also find a lot of it in:
- Various oils including corn, soybean, and safflower
Plant-based foods tend to be much higher in antioxidants than meats. Berries and berry products, rank near the top of the antioxidant scale, including:
- Wild strawberries
Many herbs and spices are high on the list, too, as are cocoa and nuts.