You know the term — or have at least heard it — and you’ve concluded that antioxidants must be good for you because so many grocery items tout their inclusion in their food and drink products. But what are they, what do they do, and why do they matter for your health? And as important, how can you make sure you’re getting enough of them in your diet?
Antioxidants clean up and help eliminate free radical waste from the body. It is those free radicals that cause so many health problems, especially as we age and their damage accumulates. Free radicals are thought to play a role in many diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis), and atherosclerosis (the buildup of cholesterol, fats, and plaque in your arteries that can lead to heart disease). Eye diseases such as macular degeneration are also linked to free radical damage. Clearly there is nothing on this list you want.
Free radicals aren’t all bad. We need them to patrol our immune system and attack foreign invaders. Some free radicals come from the outside (environmental pollutants, pesticides, alcohol consumption, tobacco smoke, fried foods, and processed meats), others we create ourselves as byproducts of natural processes such as metabolism and even from things we do as part of a healthy lifestyle — exercise, for example. As with so many things in life, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. We need some free radicals, just not too many. This is where antioxidants come in.
Free radicals are molecules that contain unpaired electrons and they damage your cells when they circulate through your body looking for electrons to steal from other molecules, a process known as oxidation. This process leaves behind waste products and over time, this debris in your body contributes to aging, as well as to the diseases mentioned above. Antioxidants are special in that they can donate an electron to a free radical without suffering any damage, thereby keeping the free radical population in check and your many trillions of cells protected and healthy.
Naturally, the best sources for antioxidants are … wait for it …. fruits and vegetables! And the more colorful, the better. Come on, you weren’t really thinking burgers and beer, were you?
Okay, so here are just some of the top antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies – nothing exotic or hard to find. And remember, with these foods you’re also getting other things that nourish your body like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Berries – all kinds, including raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries
- Most other fruits, but especially apricots, cherries, and watermelon
- Broccoli (considered a superfood, even though lately it’s kale that draws the paparazzi)
- Spinach (Popeye knew this 100 years ago)
- Asparagus, artichokes, dark green leafy lettuces, and other greens such as mustard, kale (there it is), and beet
- Avocados and potatoes
- Green tea
- And – yes!! – dark chocolate