When perusing the grocery aisles for health-conscious choices, it may be overwhelming to discern between the many products available. Labels on products from beverages to snacks to body lotions promise the benefit of antioxidants, but being informed about antioxidants, what exactly they are, where to find them and how they work in the body can help ensure that one’s diet obtains the maximum advantage from them.
“To understand why antioxidants are important, you must first know what free radicals are,” said Stacey Whittle, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Healthy by Design Nutrition Specialists. “In regards to the human body, free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that can damage our cells and organs. They are responsible for aging, tissue damage and possibly the cause of disease. The chemical reactions responsible for breathing and eating create free radicals.”
Environmental causes of free radicals include stress, air pollution, processed foods, prescription and recreational drugs, smoking and industrial chemicals.
She said one’s health is at risk when the amount of free radicals is greater than what the body can handle, causing aging and disease.
“This sounds grim, but we aren’t helpless against free radicals,” Whittle said.
The body makes numerous molecules that suppress free radicals, and the body also extracts free-radical fighters from food, she explains. These defenders, often called antioxidants, are phytochemicals (plant chemicals), vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They can be found in most fruits and vegetables, but culinary herbs and medicinal herbs can also contain high levels of antioxidants.
According to Whittle, the most commonly known antioxidants are:
n Vitamin A and carotenoids: Found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, collards, kale, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
n Vitamin C: Found in fruits, such as oranges, tangerines and other citrus fruits, blueberries, strawberries, kiwi, tomatoes, bell peppers, green leafy vegetables and tomatoes.
n Vitamin E: Found in nuts and seeds, whole grains and green leafy vegetables.
n Selenium: Found in fish and shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken and garlic.
n Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Found in fish, meat, soybean oil, sesame oil and canola oil.
Whittle said antioxidants came to public attention in the 1990s, when scientists began understanding that free radical damage was involved in the early stages of artery-clogging atherosclerosis and may contribute to cancer, vision loss and several other chronic conditions. Some studies showed that people with low intakes of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables were at greater risk for developing these chronic conditions than were people who ate plenty of these foods. Clinical trials began testing the impact of single substances, especially beta-carotene and vitamin E, as deterrents against heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
“We have to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts every day,” said Marion Alvarez, M.D., health coach and plant-based nutrition counselor. “There’s no need to take antioxidant supplements; just add a few of these to your diet every day.”
She listed beans, blueberries, artichokes, raspberries, apples, pecans, broccoli, squash, carrots, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, cocoa beans and green tea.
When incorporating antioxidants into one’s diet, “it is best to consume raw fruits and vegetables because most antioxidants can be affected when cooked at high temperatures,” Alvarez added. Also, “it has been said that dairy can cancel out the antioxidants’ positive effects, so it’s better to avoid eating dairy with fruit and vegetables.”
Besides being an important part of a balanced diet for overall health and well-being, antioxidants are available in a variety of beauty products marketed as anti-aging. Dermatologist Dr. Molly Griffin said the most effective ones are vitamin C, idebenone (she recommends the product Prevage) and the fruit extract CoffeeBerry (she suggests the product Revaleskin). These help with “all the components of sun damage: tone, texture and discoloration in the skin,” Griffin said.
So while antioxidants help prevent diseases, they may also preserve and improve physical appearance. Alvarez said consuming antioxidants in food can also “prevent premature aging and increase collagen production, which helps skin to be firmer.”