How Are Antioxidants Good For Health?

It is hard to avoid the word "antioxidants" while delving into the subject of nutrition and healthy diets. Though most people know they are healthy, what exactly are they and just how do they benefit your health?

What are antioxidants?

Sometimes referred to as "free-radical scavengers," these substances are produced in our body and also found in a variety of foods. Respectively, they are known as endogenous and exogenous antioxidants.

As for the meaning behind their name, Jacqui Adcock, a research fellow at Deakin University in Australia, explains they protect molecules from a damaging chemical process known as oxidation.

Okay. But why free-radical scavengers?

Free radicals refer to waste substances produced by our body as a result of regular metabolism. While they can be beneficial in some ways, free radicals can also be produced in excess if one were to follow an unhealthy lifestyle. This includes smoking, overeating, drinking too much alcohol, exposing oneself to UV radiation, etc.

Antioxidants get their nickname since they bind themselves to free radicals, which could stop these waste substances from damaging your cells and your overall body function.

So getting more antioxidants prevents diseases, right?

According to the Harvard Nutrition Source, antioxidants have only been receiving attention from researchers since the 1990s. This means a lot of studies on how they affect our risk of disease are inconclusive. This is especially the case with antioxidants in supplement form.

Another factor is that there are so many antioxidants, which makes it hard to pinpoint the individual effect of each one. Instead, experts study how certain foods containing antioxidants may impact disease risk. Based on this, they make food recommendations which may be wholly or partially a result of the antioxidant content.

Any examples of these recommendations?

Vitamin A/C/E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, and zeaxanthin all act as antioxidants. As you may know, these are often found in nutritious plant-based foods. 

"For some examples, tomatoes, which are high in a potent antioxidant, lycopene, appear to be associated with a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer," said Edward Giovannucci, M.D., professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Research has also shed light on the high levels of antioxidants in coffee when linking the beverage to numerous health benefits such as weight management, better eye health, reduced risk of cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and more.

Should I try supplements?

Generally, dietitians recommend getting your antioxidants in the form of a healthful diet including fruits, vegetables, grains, eggs, and nuts. Supplements are actually better off avoided unless a doctor specifically prescribes them for a deficiency.

As noted earlier, oxygen radicals are not always bad for you, sometimes required for immune defense and hormone synthesis. For example, one study from 2016 found that supplements targeting these radicals could actually end up doing more harm than good.