What Are Antioxidants?

For years, health sciences have studied the beneficial role of chemical compounds collectively called “antioxidants”, but the total picture is still muddy. Antioxidants are compounds that can prevent damage to our cells from the byproducts of using oxygen in our metabolism, and from environmental toxins. You may have heard the term “free radicals”, and this kind of “oxidative” damage is a clear contributor to heart disease (atherosclerosis) and possibly diabetes complications. Some common antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, and large groups of nutrients we can get from plants called “flavonoids” and “polyphenols.”

The puzzling thing about antioxidants is that getting these compounds from food is clearly associated with health, but studies involving supplements like vitamin pills have not shown the same benefits – sometimes the result of supplementation was poorer health. It could be that foods bring along other compounds that work with antioxidants, or it could be that a balanced diet gives us just the right balance of different antioxidants. It’s clear, however, that a diet rich in a variety of antioxidant containing foods is associated with improved health.

It’s also clear that the average American diet is deficient in these foods. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2007-2010) shows that only about 50% of U.S. adults get adequate vitamins A and C from food, and only 15% get sufficient vitamin E. Getting a wide variety of antioxidants from foods is a clear benefit to health – getting antioxidants from supplements may be much less beneficial. You can boost your intake by getting more of the foods listed below into your diet:

  • Vitamin A – carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens
  • Vitamin C- citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloup
  •  Vitamin E- spinach, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts
  • Flavonoids- apples, blueberries, red grapes, dark chocolate, tea
  • Polyphenols- coffee, cherries, tomatoes
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