When we talk about getting antioxidants, we’re talking about “compounds found in food that stop or delay damage to the cells,” Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida., tells SELF. “Antioxidants are released from the foods we eat through digestion and travel through the bloodstream and into cells,” where they work on free radicals, Dr. Wright explains.
There are thousands of antioxidants, and they are not only present in highly hyped “superfoods.” You can find antioxidants in a broad range of foods—like fruits, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, and meats—as well as in supplement form. (More on supplements later!)
Some antioxidants are essential vitamins that your body needs to function, while others are essential minerals. Examples of antioxidant vitamins include vitamin C (found in Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, and peppers), vitamin E (found in almonds, sunflower seeds, and olive oil), and vitamin A, which your body makes from beta carotene (found in collard greens, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe). Examples of antioxidant minerals include selenium (found in Brazil nuts, pork, and turkey) and zinc (found in oysters, beef, and pumpkin seeds).
Then there are antioxidants that aren’t exactly considered essential nutrients, but still have effects on cells and tissues, Bradley Bolling, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells SELF. You can find these in plant, animal, and other dietary sources.
A few examples of these antioxidants include carotenoid cousins of beta carotene such as lycopene (found in watermelon, tomato sauce, and ketchup) and lutein and zeaxanthin (found in spinach, Romaine lettuce, and Swiss chard), chlorogenic acid (found in coffee, apples, and eggplants), flavonoids (found in berries, tea, and citrus fruits), and ergothioneine (found in mushrooms).
Health benefits of antioxidants
As a whole, antioxidants can be helpful because they fight back against that oxidative stress, which is linked to the wide swath of health problems mentioned above.
Of course, it’s important to understand that a multitude of factors determines your risk of developing various diseases—oxidative stress is just one of them. Research does point to a broad range of health benefits in people who consume more antioxidants, but the NCCIH notes that it’s possible the benefits of antioxidant-rich diets may have to do with a combination of substances in the food rather than specific antioxidants themselves—not to mention, other related lifestyle or dietary factors.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the research showing a link between high antioxidant intake and reduced risk of disease.
In one study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, researchers classified 23,595 Americans into four groups based on their antioxidant consumption. People who ate the most antioxidants had a 21 percent lower risk of dying over a 13-year period than people who ate the least, even as the researchers accounted for relevant mitigating factors such as participants’ age, sex, and economic status. (It’s worth noting, though, that this study was based on a 24-hour dietary recall, or people’s recollections of just one day of eating.)
Research also indicates that high amounts of dietary antioxidants may influence your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and stroke. And according to a meta-analysis published in Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology of 19 previously published studies that included over 700,000 people, a diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk of cancer, with significant reductions seen with colorectal, endometrial, and gastric in particular.
There is even evidence to suggest that particular antioxidants are associated with lower risks of particular diseases, though it’s generally really hard to tease out specific relationships. Still, higher intake of flavonoids has long been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, and a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests an association with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, too. And Dr. Giovannucci notes that high intake of lycopene (which tomatoes are rich in) appears to be associated with a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer, while high intake of beta-carotene (found in carrots) appears to be associated with a lower risk of breast cancer (particularly, estrogen receptor negative breast cancer).