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What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are compounds that protect the body’s tissues and cells against damage and oxidation from unstable compounds such as free radicals. The body can make some of its own antioxidants, but can also obtain antioxidants from the diet. Dietary antioxidants include:

  • Vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, and beta-carotene (a carotenoid which is converted to vitamin A in the body)
  • Minerals such as copper, selenium, and zinc 
  • ​Plant compounds including phytochemicals such as carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein), flavonoids and isoflavones

What do antioxidants do?

Whether they’re sourced from food or other sources, antioxidants work to fight free radicals throughout your body. Free radicals can be found in cellular waste, and if it’s left to build up in the body, it can cause oxidative stress which contributes to an interruption in cellular function.

Oxidative stress occurs often, but certain activities tend to cause more of it than others. Some of these include smoking, inhaling air pollution, exposure to toxins, radiation, and infection. 

Since oxidative stress has been linked to a huge variety of harmful inflammatory and ischemic (blood flow-related) health conditions, limiting it is extremely important. 

What are antioxidants good for?

Antioxidants are good for a wide variety of individuals, and can be beneficial for many different health conditions. By limiting oxidative stress, antioxidants help cut down on irreversible cell damage, limiting our risk factors for diseases like cancer, heart disease, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, and many more.

While some oxidative stress is normal in the course of everyday life, the activities and other factors we listed above can cause elevated levels of free radicals. Antioxidants help lessen the damage from the oxidative stress caused by free radicals. This keeps our cells healthy, which in turn keeps the rest of our body functioning at an optimal level.

Which foods are high in antioxidants?

Our bodies make antioxidants naturally, but we can also boost our antioxidant intake through the foods we eat. Every naturally occurring plant and animal species contains antioxidants, but some contain more than others. Fortunately, many of these antioxidant-rich foods are both easy to find and delicious.

Some of the foods that are highest in antioxidants include dark chocolate, pecans, berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and goji berries), red cabbage, and spinach. The food groups with the most antioxidants overall are fruits and vegetables, so you should always ensure that your diet is rich in both. Coffee is also high in antioxidants, but don’t use that as an excuse to overindulge.

Related Terms

Lycopene Isoflavones

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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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