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What Are Antioxidants?

What Are Antioxidants?

You may have heard the term antioxidant used to describe certain foods or supplements in advertisements. It seems like most health-foods are being marketed as high in antioxidants, which sounds appealing. But when you order an antioxidant protein shake at the gym, do you know what you’re putting in your body?


We’ll explain what antioxidants are, where they come from, and how they fight harmful free radicals to improve your health. We’ll also discuss some excellent sources of antioxidants and how they can improve your health.


What are antioxidants?

An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. In doing so, they have the opposite effect of free radicals. Instead of oxidizing cells, like free radicals would, antioxidants combat this process. This delays cell-damage and the development of chronic illness.


Antioxidants can be natural or man-made. Most antioxidants we consume are found in fruits and vegetables, but many people prefer to get their daily dose through supplements. Whether you get your antioxidants from the foods you eat or a personalized supplement plan, they are an important part of your diet.


What Are Free Radicals?

Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are naturally formed when the body converts nutrients into energy - either through exercise or consuming food. While this is a natural-occurring process, free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which triggers cell damage in the body. This cell damage is linked to chronic illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cognitive degeneration, and macular (eye) degeneration.


The truth is that free radicals are inevitable and we create thousands of them throughout our lifetime. So, how do you combat the damage of free radicals and oxidative stress? The answer is simple: antioxidants


What Do Antioxidants Do?

Antioxidants inhibit the oxidation of molecules that cause cell damage. They protect the body from harmful free radicals and counteract oxidative stress in your cells. By doing so, antioxidants lower the risk of developing chronic illness or diseases, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and macular (eye) degeneration. 


Oxidative stress is a well-known factor of cognitive decline. Therefore, those at risk of conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer disease (AD) should consider taking antioxidant supplements to prevent the deterioration of their cognitive abilities. Although antioxidants can’t reverse cognitive impairment, they can aid in delaying the process.


Studies “suggested that antioxidant supplements, including beta carotene, or a diet with high intake of antioxidants, reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer disease (AD) or other forms of cognitive impairment.” - Antioxidants and Prevention of Cognitive Decline, Does Duration of Use Matter - Kristine Yaffe, MD (Archives of Internal Medicine)


Types of Antioxidants

Antioxidants come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but most can be obtained naturally through your diet. Many fruits, vegetables, greens, and nuts contain potent antioxidants.


These are the top five types of antioxidants that can be found in foods or in supplement form. We’ve also included antioxidant-rich ingredients you can add to your daily diet below.


Vitamin C

Vitamin C occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Common sources of vitamin C include:

  • Kiwis
  • Citrus fruits
  • Blackcurrants
  • Blueberries
  • Guava
  • Red peppers
  • Parsley
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli 
  • Avocado


Vitamin E

Vitamin E is commonly found in nuts and seeds, fruits, and greens. These are the most common sources of vitamin E:

  • Almonds
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sunflower oil, wheat germ oil, soybean oil
  • Collard greens, spinach, beet greens
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Red bell pepper
  • Mango
  • Pumpkin


Carotenoids: beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin

Carotenoids - beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin - are found in pigmented fruits and vegetables. While all four are known antioxidants, beta-carotene is particularly recognized for its ability to be converted into vitamin A. The most common sources of carotenoids are:

  • Apricots
  • Carrots
  • Cantaloupe
  • Guava
  • Kale and collard greens
  • Beets
  • Nectarines and peaches
  • Pumpkin and other squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tangerines and other citrus fruit


Selenium

Selenium is a trace mineral, which means your body only needs a minimal amount to function. Selenium is known to improve your immune system and protect your body against chronic illness, infection, and hormone-fluctuation. Selenium can be taken in pill form or consumed through your diet. Common sources of selenium include:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Meats (beef, turkey, pork, chicken)
  • Fish (yellowfin tuna)
  • Seafood (shrimp and oysters)
  • Eggs
  • Bread


Omega-3 Fatty Acids (ALA)

Omega-3 fatty acids, more-specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is a powerful antioxidant. ALA is commonly found in nuts and seeds, but is often taken in supplement form along with the remaining Omega-3s EPA and DHAl. Foods high in ALA Omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Hemp seed


Learn More!

Read our blog to learn about antioxidants, nutritional DNA tests, and how a personalized diet would benefit your health!
Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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