Antioxidants Explained

You’ve probably heard antioxidants and know they’re good for you, but do you know how antioxidants work, where to find them, why they matter, how much you should be getting and from which sources? Here’s a “Cliffs Notes” explanation of a very complex, continually evolving topic.

In order to appreciate antioxidants, it’s important to first understand the free radical. Though not all free radicals are harmful, they are often created as by-products of metabolism and through exposure to tobacco smoke, pollution, UV radiation, and other environmental factors. Free radicals are unstable molecules, meaning they need one more electron in order to be stable. In order to gain stability, free radicals barge in on other molecules, change their chemical structure, and may damage healthy cells in the process. This is where the antioxidant steps in. Antioxidants are substances that prevent oxidation and donate electrons to free radicals in order to neutralize (stabilize) them.

Think about how a sliced apple begins to brown over time; however, if lemon or orange juice is poured over the fruit soon after slicing, the apple continues looking fresh and white significantly longer. This change in color is due to a process called oxidation, but adding citrus, a source of the antioxidant vitamin C, protects the fruit from this reaction. Antioxidants play a similar role in protecting the body’s cells from oxidative damage and free radicals as described above.

Scientists have only begun researching the “tip of the iceberg” of antioxidants. Thousands are currently being studied, and still more are discovered each year. So far, research suggests antioxidants may be instrumental in the prevention of various medical conditions including some cancers, stroke, heart disease, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis-related conditions. They may also improve the effectiveness of some cancer treatments while lessening some of the negative side effects.

It’s easy to get bogged down in all of the confusing research and scientific names of antioxidants like carotenoids, anthocyanins, and betalains—to name a few—but here’s a simple checklist to ensure you’re on the right track with incorporating them into your lifestyle:

You eat a variety of mostly whole, minimally processed foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, fish, beef, and poultry. If you like coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate, you’ll be excited to know they include antioxidants, too. With so many food sources of antioxidants, don’t worry about adding in one specific food to meet your needs. Variety is key.

If you took a weekly snapshot of all your meals and snacks, you would notice a rainbow of colors. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain lots of antioxidants, so make your plates colorful!

You’re not relying on antioxidant supplements. More is not always better, specifically when it comes to supplementing with antioxidants. With more research to be done, not all of the benefits of antioxidants have been “proven,” but they’re more likely to be safe in the amounts you’ll find in foods versus supplements. Furthermore, research has not yet shown antioxidant supplements to be beneficial in preventing disease.

Blair Mize, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN is co-owner of Memphis Nutrition Group, a nutrition & lifestyle counseling practice operated by registered & licensed dietitians/nutritionists. Memphis Nutrition Group believes in a non-diet approach that promotes overall health and optimal performance without compromising the enjoyment of food. For more information call Memphis Nutrition Group at 901.343.6146 or visit

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