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What Are Antioxidants (and Do You Really Need Them)?

September 10, 2013
Chris Heuer

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away," and if modern food packaging is to be believed, that's often due to a hefty dose of antioxidants. From sports drinks to protein bars, we're constantly bombarded with foods claiming to be packed with these supposedly healthy compounds. But what exactly are antioxidants, and how many of them do we really need?

The Need-To-Know

Antioxidants are nutrients — including vitamins like E and C — that prevent or slow oxidative damage throughout the body. Without busting out the biochemistry books, when cells use oxygen, they naturally generate free radicals (by-products) which can cause cellular damage. Antioxidants act as free radical bounty hunters that often prevent and repair damage done by the free radicals. Oxidative damage and free radicals can contribute to serious health problems such as heart disease, macular degeneration, and diabetes.

But while many of today's popular health foods contain massive doses of antioxidants like vitamin C, loading the body with as many of the nutrients as possible isn't the cure-all some might hope; in fact, ingesting large quantities of antioxidants might actually contribute to some of the very categories of disease they're touted to prevent. One now-famous study — which was actually stopped early because of the risk to patient health — showed an association between taking beta-carotene supplements with an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. And other research has come up short in definitively linking antioxidant supplements to increased longevity or decreased risks of serious disease.

Your Action Plan

But while the evidence isn't strong in support of antioxidant supplements as the key to good health, that doesn't mean they don't serve an important purpose in our diets. Consuming nutrients like vitamin C in normal doses — easily acquired in many fresh, whole foods — can help the body function normally and fight off infection. Upping those quantities to thousands of times the daily recommended value probably won't do much additional good.

Luckily, a healthy diet packed with antioxidants is relatively easy to stock up on, so grab a pen and paper and add these to the shopping list for a natural nutrient boost:

Vitamin E: Nuts, whole grains, vegetables, vegetable oil, and liver oil.

Vitamin C: Citrus fruit, tomatoes, green leafy veggies, and strawberries.

Vitamin A: Apricots, cantaloupe, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, collards, and prunes.

Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish/shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, garlic, and milk.

Flavonoids: Soy, red wine, pomegranate, cranberries, blueberries, and tea.

Lignan: Flax seed, barley, rye, and oats.

Lutein: Dark green fruits and vegetables such as kiwi, spinach, brussels sprouts, kale, and broccoli.