Antioxidants 101: What are antioxidants? The benefits + how to get more in your diet

Top view of healthy, antioxidant group of food rich in Omega-3 placed at the top-left corner of a rustic wooden table leaving useful copy space for text and/or logo. The composition includes food rich in antioxidants considered as a super-food like avocado, kale, blueberries, chia seeds, salmon, sardines, olive oil, flax seeds and goji berries. XXXL 42Mp studio photo taken with SONY A7rII and Zeiss Batis 40mm F2.0 CF

What are antioxidants?

Ask most people this question and they may have a general idea: antioxidants are things we get from food that are good for our health. Yet few of us will actually be able to explain what antioxidants do for our bodies.

“An antioxidant is a substance that prevents or slows cell damage caused by free radicals,” says Leslie Cornett, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Free radicals is another term you’ve probably heard. They’re unstable molecules in our bodies that can damage cells and cause illness, aging and certain chronic diseases.”

What benefits do antioxidants have for your body?

Cornett: The main job of antioxidants is to stop or slow the formation of free radicals. By reducing the number of free radicals in your body, they help decrease your risk of disease.

But antioxidants have also been shown to have other health benefits, such as:

What antioxidants would people recognize?

Cornett: Many antioxidants are common nutrients. Below are a few examples, as well as what they do with and a few foods they can be found in.

Antioxidant Benefits Found in
beta-carotene the body turns beta-carotene to vitamin A, which supports healthy skin and eyes squash, carrots, nectarines
lycopene reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit
selenium essential trace mineral found in soil, water and foods; boosts the effect of antioxidants crab, fish, poultry, wheat
vitamin C helps the body absorb iron; slows damage from free radicals citrus (limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit)
vitamin E protects cell walls plant oils, leafy greens, whole grains, egg yolks, nuts, seeds
zinc helps the body make protein and aids in wound healing meats, vegetables

Which foods have the most antioxidants?

Cornett: When it comes to antioxidants, you’ll get the most “bang for your buck” from eating dark-colored fruits and vegetables, foods that contain “good fats,” and by eating a variety of those foods.

Antioxidant-rich foods include:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Produce
    • Avocado
    • Berries
    • Bell peppers
    • Tomatoes
    • Broccoli
    • Dark-green leafy vegetables

Cornett: You can also use your eyes to help you make healthy choices. Make your plate look like a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and you should get plenty of antioxidants.

The superfood guide

How do most people get antioxidants: food or supplements?

Cornett: Most people get their antioxidants from food, which is great because their absorption and effects are enhanced by whole foods.

You can take antioxidants in supplemental form. However, that should never be used as a replacement for whole foods unless there are outstanding reasons (inability to eat solid foods, affordability). In reality, supplementation should only be done when guided by a medical provider; otherwise it could result in toxification and or negative health side effects.

What do you need to do to preserve antioxidants while cooking?

Cornett: Antioxidant level can be significantly affected by 3 things:

  1. cooking method,
  2. temperature,
  3. and length of cooking time.

You can get really granular about the best way to prepare every food to preserve nutrients, but in general, try to live by 3 rules:

1. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables raw when you can. 

Boiling results in the highest loss of nutrients since the nutrients leak into the water.

2. Steam your vegetables half the time you typically do.

You’ll have a firmer vegetable, which will help retain a lot more of the nutrients. (And you might learn to enjoy the al dente texture more, too.)

3. Try roasting or stir-frying.

These “dry” cooking methods result in the least amount of lost nutrients.

More from WellTuned on nutrients and your body

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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