We've all heard about the health benefits of antioxidants, but what exactly are they? And how can you tell if your diet provides enough of them? Read on for answers – and a handy antioxidant shopping list.
Antioxidants: We hear about them on TV programs and read about them in the news. Doctors order us to eat them, and studies tell us they can help ward off cancers and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
But could you define the word antioxidant? Could you identify antioxidant-filled foods at the supermarket? If not, this post is for you – and your health. I’ll explain antioxidants and their importance in plain English – and leave you with a printable guide that simplifies healthy grocery shopping.
What is an antioxidant?
Merriam-Webster defines antioxidant as “a substance (as beta-carotene or vitamin C) that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxides, or free radicals.”
Experts at the National Institutes of Health use even more technical terms…
“Antioxidants are substances that may prevent potentially disease-producing cell damage that can result from natural bodily processes and from exposure to certain chemicals. Oxidation – one of the body’s natural chemical processes – can produce free radicals, which are highly unstable molecules that can damage cells. That damage, known as oxidative stress, is thought to play a role in the development of many diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, eye disease, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.”
But all you really need to understand is this:
When you are exposed to cigarette smoke, air pollution, ozone, X-rays, UV radiation from the sun, and various chemicals, your body produces molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are bad because they damage your cells, leaving you more susceptible to disease. Antioxidants are good because they help counteract cell damage.
You don’t need to memorize this list to benefit from antioxidants, but it’s still helpful to know their names. Here’s a list of common antioxidants compiled from data from Johns Hopkins University, Oregon State University, and the National Cancer Institute…
Beta-carotene, part of a group of naturally occurring compounds called carotenoids, which are responsible for producing the colors in certain foods like the orange in carrots
Lutein, another carotenoid
Lycopene, another carotenoid
Vitamin A, which includes Vitamin A1 (aka retinol), Vitamin A2 (aka 3,4-didehydroretinol), and Vitamin A3 (aka 3-hydroxy-retinol)
Vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid)
Vitamin E, which comes in eight forms, all known as either tocopherols or tocotrienols
Manganese, a mineral found on the periodic table of elements
Selenium, another mineral
- Flavonoids, a large group of compounds that are found in certain foods
How to shop for antioxidants
Natural antioxidants: Because natural antioxidants occur naturally in foods – meaning they were built in by Mother Nature, not added by food manufacturers – you won’t find them listed in a food’s ingredient list. So you can’t shop for antioxidants if you don’t know which foods naturally contain them. But if you print my Antioxidant Shopping Cheat Sheet PDF (which you can also download and save for future reference), you’ll have a guide to rely on when you grocery shop. The cheat sheet lists dozens of antioxidant-containing foods along with the specific antioxidants they contain, all grouped into supermarket-based sections for speedy shopping.
Synthetic antioxidants: Taking an antioxidant-filled pill sounds easier and cheaper than hunting down antioxidant-filled foods, but some studies indicate that synthetic-antioxidant supplements don’t offer the same health benefits as natural-antioxidant foods. The one thing all experts agree on is that antioxidant supplements are meant to supplement a healthy, natural-antioxidant-filled diet, not replace it. That means you need to eat antioxidant foods regardless of whether you take a supplement. (If you’re considering a supplement, be sure to talk to your doctor about which ones are right for you.)