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Antioxidants 101

By Elizabeth Herrin, MS, RD, LD

Another health food buzzword that has gripped the nutritionally curious over the past several years is “antioxidant.” Foods like acai berries became “superfoods” because of their high levels of these compounds. But what is an antioxidant, what foods contain antioxidants, and how are they beneficial? 

What is an antioxidant?

Antioxidants are a compound present in foods. Some vitamins function as antioxidants. As their name would suggest, antioxidants prevent oxidation, which is a type of chemical reaction that can be harmful to our cells. Too much oxidation is called oxidative stress. For context, oxidation is the same type of chemical reaction that causes apples to brown and causes oils to turn rancid. As you can imagine, too many of these reactions can cause issues in our bodies.

Antioxidants work by neutralizing compounds in our bodies called free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that become unstable and chaotic due to the absence or presence of an extra electron. They are created when bodies are exposed to pollutants or environmental toxins, however they are also created during exercise and when exposed to sunlight. When antioxidants are present, they are able to pacify these chaotic molecules and prevent them from wreaking havoc in our cells. 

What foods contain antioxidants?

Some examples of dietary antioxidants are vitamins like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Beta-Carotene. These are common in fruits and vegetables. 

What does the research say about antioxidants?

The benefits of antioxidants can be seen across the body. 

Some studies have shown significant decreased in oxidative stress in Crohn’s Disease patients when supplemented with antioxidants. They may also play a role in preventing macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss in older adults. 

However, it is important to note that they may not be a miracle cure for chronic disease. One study found an increased rate in lung cancer when supplemented with large quantities of vitamin A/beta-carotene. 

Do I need to supplement antioxidants?

The short answer is probably not. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables should provide all the antioxidants that your body needs. However, if you have an inflammatory condition like Crohn’s disease or if you smoke cigarettes, your body has higher antioxidant needs. In these cases, supplements of antioxidants like Vitamin C may be beneficial. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before beginning any supplement regiments as they can interact with certain medications. 

Have more antioxidant questions? Make an appointment with our registered dietitian to get the answers.