What is an antioxidant?

Colorful fruits and vegetables like blueberries, cranberries, cherries, red beans are high in antioxidants.
Colorful fruits and vegetables like blueberries, cranberries, cherries, red beans are high in antioxidants.

Antioxidants play an important role in your health. Their primary function is to repair DNA and cells within the body. Think of them as natural defenders against our daily environment. They help protect us from viruses, infection, or pollution. Eating foods high in antioxidants helps keep your body healthy.

Every day, your body is exposed to threats from the outside world. Some of those threats come from chemicals called free radicals. You might encounter free radicals naturally, like when the body turns food into energy. You can also be exposed to free radicals from the environment, in substances like cigarette smoke, alcohol, pollution, and processed food as well as through sunlight and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Free radicals can cause potential damage to the cells in our body because they steal electrons — a particle that bonds atoms together. When someone experiences a lot of free radical damage, it may cause things like bad cholesterol, damaged cells, and chronic disease. It’s not possible to avoid free radicals entirely, so you need to make sure your body can fight back against them to keep you protected.

The body fights back against free radicals by producing molecules called antioxidants. Antioxidants help defend the body against free radicals and repair and maintain the health of cells. This helps reduce the risk of diseases like heart disease and some cancers.

Foods with the highest antioxidants

We all need antioxidants in the body to help balance the free radicals we come in contact with. Most people have a natural and healthy balance of free radicals and antioxidants in their bodies, but we can supplement these antioxidants with a healthy diet. The foods we eat can also provide us with antioxidants. For instance, colorful fruits and vegetables have many natural antioxidants.

What are the best ways to get antioxidants?

If you are looking to get more antioxidants, the thing you can do is to maintain a healthy diet and eat certain foods and vitamins. This includes things like:

  • Vitamin A: often found in milk, butter, and eggs 
  • Vitamin C: often found in fruit like berries, oranges, and kiwis
  • Vitamin E: often found in nuts and seeds
  • Beta-carotene (a red-orange pigment found in plants): often found in fruits like apricots, peaches, and mangoes 
  • Lycopene (a red pigment found in plants): often found in grapefruit, apricot, and watermelon
  • Lutein (an anti-inflammatory pigment found in leafy vegetables): often found in kale, broccoli, and peas
  • Selenium (an antioxidant mineral found in food): often found in corn, wheat, and rice 

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What foods have the highest antioxidants?

A study done by the United States Department of Agriculture studied the foods that have the highest antioxidants. Here is a list of the top foods:

  • Red beans
  • Blueberries
  • Red kidney beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Cranberries
  • Artichoke
  • Blackberries
  • Prunes 
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Pecans
  • Cherries
  • Plums
  • Russet potatoes

Risks and outlook

Antioxidants naturally occur and change in our body all the time. Most people get supplemental antioxidants without even knowing it simply by maintaining a good diet. After all, what we eat and how we take care of our body makes all the difference. 

Doctors recommend eating a well-balanced diet full of all different kinds of fruits and vegetables, not just foods with the highest antioxidants. Our bodies need a healthy mix of chemicals, minerals, and fibers to function properly.

Antioxidants alone do not prevent disease. Each of us is unique, and our bodies may react differently to antioxidants. If you are considering introducing more antioxidants into your daily diet or are considering taking antioxidant supplements, discuss it with your doctor. Many supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and may not be effective for every person.

Before you begin taking high doses of antioxidants in your diet, consult with your doctor. It can be helpful to ask questions like:

  • Will antioxidant supplements interact with the medication you’re taking? 
  • What other antioxidants can be found in food? 
  • What type of antioxidants would be best for me? 
  • Should I increase my antioxidants if I have cancer

If you think you need more antioxidants, consider all of your options and consult with your health care provider before making big changes.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/24/2021
References
Family Doctor: “Antioxidants.”

Harvard Education: “Antioxidants.”

St. Johns Health: “Antioxidants.”