All About Antioxidants

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We have all heard of antioxidants; substances like beta carotene, lycopene and vitamins A and E that supposedly fight cancer, and pack a host of other health benefits.

Over the past decade, increasing awareness and demand for those benefits has resulted in many prepared food and supplement companies making a very big deal about incorporating antioxidants into their products. But how do they work, and how effective are these pills and powders in improving health and combating cancer?

How Antioxidants Work

Essentially, antioxidants fight free radicals. Free radicals are unstable and unavoidable molecules generated by internal processes like metabolism, and external factors like sun damage. Antioxidants break down the healthy cells of the body by scavenging them for electrons, which have been linked to the development of serious ailments, like heart disease and cancer.

Antioxidants break the cycle of electron borrowing and arrest cell damage through several mechanisms. All antioxidants are not created equal, though. Various antioxidant nutrients, found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, work on free radicals in different ways and in different environments in the body, so getting a mix of them is ideal.

So Antioxidants Prevent Cancer, Right?

Actually, it isn't that simple. Studies of people taking doses of antioxidant supplements have proved to be a mixed bag. The first major study on the subject found significantly reduced rates of cancer in Chinese men and women who were given doses of antioxidants. This research received a lot of attention and began the craze for everything antioxidant.

However, various subsequent studies have complicated the results, by indicating significant benefit, suggesting possible harm to certain populations and in some cases, finding no discernible effect at all from concentrated doses of antioxidant supplements. This has caused organizations like the American Heart Association to issue recommendations against taking antioxidant supplements, and instead reap the many antioxidant benefits found in a healthy, varied diet.

If Not Supplements, Then What?

Without exception, a diet based around a wide variety of whole fruits, vegetables and legumes will provide a ton of antioxidants, along with the added benefit of fiber and other nutrients. Experts agree this is the best way to get the benefits of antioxidants, without risking the consequences of a potentially toxic dose of supplements.

The Most Antoxidant-Rich Foods

Antioxidants are found naturally in many healthful foods. Blueberries get a lot of press for being the most antioxidant dense fruit, but all berries are a great choice. Vegetables and legumes, like black beans, kidney beans and tomatoes, are high on the list also.

Finally, nuts—pecans in particular, which are packed with both antioxidants and protein—are a great antioxidant-filled snack. Even popcorn has been shown to be high in antioxidants.

As always, when at the supermarket stocking up on these free radical fighters, consider purchasing organic produce. This will allow you and your family to maximize the health benefit of these superfoods, by minimizing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and pesticides.

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