You probably hear the word ‘antioxidant’ thrown about quite a bit. They’re found in a bunch of your favorite fruits and veggies, and even in some beauty products like face creams. But what do they do, exactly, and should you load up on them?
Antioxidants have an important job: They neutralize oxidants (better known as free radicals).
This is key because free radicals may cause harm to the cardiovascular system or speed up the aging process. Free radicals come from various everyday sources, like booze, smoking, excess exposure to sunlight, radiation, or pollution.
Antioxidants & Free Radicals
Not so quick, though. We do still need small doses of free radicals: “Oxidants can be destructive in large amounts but have vitally important roles in our body in smaller amounts and during specific times,” says Demmig-Adams. “Balance is key.”
While antioxidant deficiency leaves too many free radicals to roam free in our body, excessive antioxidant intake (especially through high-dose supplements) may remove too many free radicals from your body. That’s because our immune systems create oxidants to kill disease-inducing bacteria, viruses, and other invaders, Demmig-Adams explains.
Related: 5 Foods That Are Packed With Probiotics
Diane L. McKay, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, says that fighting free radicals isn’t the antioxidant’s sole claim to fame. They also trigger our body’s own antioxidant defense network, she says, which helps to boost our immune functions.
While everyone needs antioxidants, if you live in a polluted area or are a smoker, they prove especially important. Also, the aging process (sorry, that affects all of us, no matter where we live) involves the production of an increased amount of free radicals, which can lead to the death of cells, notes Demmig-Adams.
Where Do Antioxidants Like To Hang Out?
Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes. “Antioxidants are best acquired with a whole-food-based diet,” says Demmig-Adams.
Dietary antioxidants, McKay says, come mostly from the phytochemicals (compounds found in plants) in plant-based foods or in vitamins C, E, and beta carotene (a version of vitamin A).
For vitamin C (which smokers will need more of), seek out fresh fruit (like oranges, kiwi, or strawberries) and green leaves (like kale). You’ll find vitamin E in foods like nuts and fatty fish and antioxidant minerals (zinc and selenium) in meat, salmon, and Brazil nuts.
Related: Can Green Tea Really Help You Lose Weight?
Good news for the morning sippers among us: Green teas and coffee can also supply a healthy dose of antioxidants, says McKay.
If you like to work up a sweat, you’re in luck. “Regular moderate exercise—and the moderate amounts of free radicals produced in the process—triggers a subgroup of antioxidants the human body is able to manufacture itself [like glutathione] and helps reset the proper balance of oxidants and antioxidants,” says Demmig-Adams.