You may have heard that certain foods are good for you because they are high in antioxidants. But, what is an antioxidant and why is it beneficial to our health? An antioxidant is a substance that helps work against the damaging effects of oxidative stress, which increases the body’s formation of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are formed during the natural process of digestion, during exercise, and from exposure to pollution or cigarette smoke. These molecules then cause cellular damage, which can speed up aging, and may lead to cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease. In order decrease the problems caused by free radicals, the body needs antioxidants which help neutralize these damaging molecules.
Common antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E, as well as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. These health-boosting antioxidants are naturally found in fruits and vegetables. It is believed that a plant-based diet, and therefore a diet high in antioxidants, may decrease the risk of many chronic diseases.
Vitamin C works to keep our skin healthy and to support the immune system. It helps prevent damage that occurs when our skin is exposed to too much sun or pollution. Vitamin C is also used to make skin, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments, keeping many of the body’s tissues functioning correctly. When skin is damaged, the body will need additional vitamin C to help in the repair process. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, and bell peppers.
Vitamin E helps reduce the effect of sun damage and assist in wound healing. Vitamin E has anti-inflammatory properties and may help decrease inflammation, a primary cause of many chronic diseases. Vitamin E is also an excellent moisturizer which can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles, due to its antioxidant capacity. Vitamin E is found in nuts, olives, and spinach.
Vitamin A is the primary antioxidant used to maintain healthy eyes, in conjunction with lycopene and lutein, which work together to help protect from macular degeneration, a common form of age-related vision loss. Retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A, can help promote skin turn over, keep skin looking smoother, and decrease the effects of aging. Vitamin A is especially potent in preventing certain skin cancers when combined with Vitamin E. Vitamin A is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and green, leafy vegetables.
Certain foods are considered antioxidant powerhouses. For example, blueberries have an exceptionally high antioxidant capacity, providing a lot of punch for their small size. Kale, due to its dark green color, is also high in antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene. But, any fruit or vegetable contains some antioxidant, so be sure to eat the ones you like!
Most multivitamins may also contain some of the basic antioxidants because of how important they are in maintaining overall health. One thing to know about antioxidants though, is that we cannot get all of them through a vitamin supplement alone. A good multivitamin can give you some of the basics (vitamin A, C, E), but there are thousands more antioxidants that have not been identified that are only found in a diet high in fruits and vegetables. So, be sure to eat your fruits and veggies to help fight off those free radicals.
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