You might already know about foods you should be eating for your heart or your gut—but what about the foods that protect your cells? Those would be the ones packed with antioxidants, a buzzy term you’ve probably heard before.
Antioxidants occur naturally in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, and chocolate. While there are thousands of antioxidant compounds out there, you’ve probably heard of flavanols (found in chocolate), resveratrol (found in wine), and lycopene (found in tomatoes). Other popular antioxidants include vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, E, and catechins.
Antioxidants help prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidants. (Get it? Antioxidants.) “Oxidants are free radicals that you find in the environment, but they’re also produced naturally in your body,” says Diane McKay, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher at Tufts University’s Antioxidants Research Laboratory.
Your body creates them to help fend off viruses and microbes, but if you have too many, they can cause serious damage and contribute to certain cancers and heart disease. You also get hit with oxidants daily from things like air pollution, cigarette smoke, and alcohol, McKay says. (Gross.)
The solution seems obvious: Just overload your body with antioxidants to counteract all the free radicals, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
“You want to have a balance of antioxidants to oxidants,” McKay says.
In the 90s, antioxidants got some serious hype as researchers began noticing the link between free radicals and myriad chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and vision loss. Though the verdict was still out on most of the scientific trials, “cancer-fighting” and “antiaging” pill and powder supplements started flooding the market.
“I think the biggest misconception about antioxidants is that it’s a fancy buzzword,” says Cassie Bjork, R.D., the dietitian behind Healthy Simple Life. But “antioxidants load your cells and protect you from disease naturally, with no side effects.”
The catch? It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, especially if you frequently take supplements. “If you have too many antioxidants, you suppress your body’s own ability to turn on its antioxidant defense system,” McKay says. Luckily, it’s difficult to get too much from your diet, which is why most experts recommend sticking to natural sources.
Antioxidant supplements also largely have a placebo effect, and some studies have even found they might have a negative impact on certain diseases like lung and skin cancer. Additionally, supplements aren’t subject to FDA approval, Bjork says. If you do decide to take one, Bjork suggests looking for a label that includes the words pharmaceutical grade.
Your Action Plan
Blueberries often steal the spotlight, but they’re not the only food rich in antioxidants. In fact, most plant-based foods or drinks—everything from raspberries and green tea to black pepper and cocoa—have some antioxidant properties.
“I love red peppers, kiwis, and pumpkin, but I think the unexpected one is coffee,” Bjork says. While she admits it’s not the richest source, it is one of the top sources of antioxidants in terms of popularity.
Whenever you have the option—say with foods such as apples, potatoes, or grapes—eat them with the skin on, McKay says, since it’s packed with antioxidants.
Another unexpected source? Herbs and spices. “We consume them in small amounts, but they’re usually dried, so they’re more concentrated,” McKay says. “You’re not going to get a whole lot by sprinkling some oregano on once, but if you do that regularly, it does add up.”
When in doubt, eat a wide variety of colors in fruits and veggies. And if you’d like to start taking a supplement regularly, it’s always a good idea to run it by your health provider first.