Each day, unseen enemies go to war with your body. Exposure to environmental toxins ranging from polluted skies to alcohol consumption creates unstable compounds called “free radicals” that can damage your cells. Such harm has been linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Fortunately, you can help keep free radicals at bay simply by eating the right foods, says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“It’s important to eat foods high in antioxidants,” Rumsey says.
What causes free radicals to thrive?
Free radicals are the result of an atom or molecule that gains or loses an electron. Free radicals occur naturally inside the body, and are part of normal cellular activity.
However, excessive levels of free radicals can damage many parts of your cells, including DNA, proteins and cell membranes. Factors that can generate excessive levels of free radicals include exposure to:
- Cigarette smoke
- Fried foods
- The sun
- Emotional stress
In addition to being linked to disease, free-radical damage is also believed to contribute to the aging process.
How an antioxidant-rich diet tames free radicals
Fortunately, you have a powerful ally in the fight against excessive levels of free radicals. Antioxidants are natural substances that can mitigate – or even halt – the potential for free radicals to damage your cells.
Antioxidants are often known as “free-radical scavengers.” Experts say they work their magic by contributing an electron to the free radical and stabilizing it before it damages parts of the cell.
While the body creates some antioxidants naturally, you can boost your army of these free-radical fighters by eating the right diet, Rumsey says.
Antioxidant foods include beta-carotene, lycopene, and the vitamins A, C and E.
Plant-based foods are the best source of antioxidants. Categories of foods known to be rich in such these substances include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
“The larger variety of these foods you get, the better, as you’ll get a well-rounded supply of nutrients,” Rumsey says.
In many cases, the vibrant colors of a food – the deep reds of tomatoes, blues of blueberries and oranges of carrots – reveal it as being rich in antioxidants.
Some individual foods contain higher levels of antioxidants than others. Such foods include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale or spinach
- Russet potatoes
- Sweet potatoes
The International Food Information Council Foundation offers a full list of antioxidant-rich foods at its website.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that foods with high levels of antioxidants tend to offer other health benefits, such as being high in fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
What about antioxidant supplements?
Although some people take an antioxidant supplement to try to boost their level of antioxidants, many experts advise against this.
Some studies have indicated that antioxidants in supplement form may not have the same protective benefits as antioxidants obtained through diet.
In fact, people who smoke or who otherwise are at high risk of lung cancer might actually increase their risk of cancer if they take beta-carotene supplements, according to the American Academy of Physicians.
Rumsey agrees that avoiding supplements is probably wise.
“Skip the supplements,” she says. “The best source of antioxidant vitamins is through whole, real foods.”