You’ve probably heard about antioxidants before, whether it’s in fitness articles, food journals, or general advertising. It’s a name that’s been thrown around for a while, and you know it’s good for you because you’ve read it countless times, but may not know exactly why. Even though the name of antioxidants may give away their function, understanding the science behind what happens in your body with these molecules is key if you’re on a fitness journey. And even if you’re not an active person, healthy eating should always be a priority, and antioxidants are a big part of that. So, what do they do exactly? And how do they benefit you? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about them, as well as the best and not-so-good sources that you can find.
What are antioxidants?
To put it simply, antioxidants are molecules that act as the bodyguards of your cells, protecting them from harm. But to better understand this, we need to talk first about the actual source of harm: free radicals. Free radicals are chemical compounds generated by your body as a result of different processes, like food metabolism and exercise, as well as external factors such as air pollution and cigarette smoke. These are unstable molecules that contain oxygen but have an uneven number of electrons, so they can easily react and bind to your cell membranes, damaging them through a process called oxidation. This is where antioxidants come in. These molecules neutralize free radicals by giving them electrons without destabilizing themselves, countering the oxidation process, and protecting your cells from damage. But while your body naturally produces antioxidants, it’s still not enough to fight the free radicals effectively, so you need to get them through your diet to keep a good balance in your body.
As you now know, antioxidants help maintain your physiological function in great condition by protecting your cells and genetic material from free radicals. But what exactly are they protecting your body from? Well, free radicals, when in excess, can alter the composition of your cells and DNA strands through a phenomenon called oxidative stress, which is the name given to the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants present in your body. This process has been linked to major health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.  Aside from acting as radical scavengers, they supply your body with hydrogen, and act as an enzyme inhibitor and peroxide decomposer, among other things.
To put it simply, by keeping a good level of antioxidants in your body, you’re helping support good overall health and prevent your body from possibly developing serious health issues.
There are a lot of antioxidant supplements that you could try, such as vitamin C and E, carotenoids, and zinc, but in this case, it’s better to stick to whole foods and get all of the nutrients that you need from them. This is because, while there has been some positive research regarding antioxidant supplements, some studies have shown that taking high doses of beta-carotene supplements increases the chance of developing lung cancer in smokers. Other studies showed that taking vitamin E along with other supplements doesn’t actually protect you from chronic diseases such as prostate cancer, and can even increase the chance to develop it in some patients. 
Antioxidants are thought to work best when combined with other nutrients and plant chemicals naturally present in whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. By eating these foods, you get more complex compounds along with your antioxidants, such as essential micro and macronutrients that all blend to make a healthy and effective recipe for your body. Another important thing to note is that antioxidants vary in size and chemical composition, so while there are eight different forms of vitamin E present in whole foods, for example, alpha-tocopherol is typically the only form included in vitamin E supplements.
So, if you’re thinking about increasing your antioxidant levels to support better health, try including some of these natural sources of antioxidants in your regular diet:
Broccoli is one of the best foods to add to your diet at all times. Not only do they contain phenolics, which are compounds high in antioxidants, helping protect your body from diseases, allergies, and inflammation, but they’re also great sources of fiber, protein, lutein, vitamin A, B, C, E, and K, and folic acid. Other dark and leafy vegetables such as arugula and kale are also packed with antioxidants, making them a nutritional powerhouse that you should include in your foods. You can boil them, roast them with other vegetables, and make them into a smoothie… Your choice!
If you’re craving a little bit of chocolate in your diet, look no further than dark chocolate! It has a high amount of antioxidants, minerals, and polyphenols, a lot more than regular chocolate because it has higher contents of cocoa. More cocoa equals more antioxidants (flavonoids), so always look for a high cocoa percentage when you’re buying your dark chocolate bars. Cocoa-rich products help reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, and it’s also great for inflammation. Dark chocolate is perfect for a midday snack when you’re craving something different, or you can melt it and add it to your oatmeal or fruit bowl.
Berries in general are a great source of nutrients, but blueberries, in particular, are packed with antioxidants, containing the highest amount among other fruits and vegetables, and they’re also low in calories. Blueberries contain several types of antioxidants, and one of the types called anthocyanin has been proven to help reduce the levels of blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, as well as risk factors for heart disease. Blueberries are delicious and can be added to a variety of foods, such as smoothies, fruit bowls, oatmeal, pancakes… You can even eat them whole, be it fresh or frozen, or in jam form. Other berries that are high in antioxidants are strawberries, raspberries, and goji berries, so you can combine them all to make a nutritious punch.
This group of legumes is widely known for their nutritional value, with antioxidants being on that list of pros. A particular type of antioxidant known as kaempferol that is present in some beans, such as pinto beans, has been linked to suppression in cancer growth, as well as reduced chronic inflammation, among other health benefits. They’re also very rich in fiber, contributing to better digestive health. Beans are a great staple food to have in your kitchen since there are many different kinds that you can choose from depending on what you crave at the moment, and you can have them for breakfast, dinner, lunch, or all three. You choose!
Beets are a rich source of antioxidants, as well as fiber, iron, and potassium. The particular antioxidant type found in beets is called betalain and it has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, particularly related to the digestive system, and also helps fight inflammation. Beets can be cooked in a variety of ways, such as roasted, stir-fried with other vegetables, baked, or steamed, and can be added to any dish as a healthy side.
Just like other nuts, pecans have a high content of healthy fats, protein, and minerals, but they’re also very rich in antioxidants! The antioxidants present in pecans have been linked to a decrease in oxidized LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease, but they’re also high in calories, so try to eat them in moderation. You can enjoy pecans directly from the container as a midday snack, or add them to your salads and oatmeal. Other nuts and seeds that are high in antioxidants and that you can add to your diet are peanuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts.
Even though artichokes are very popular, they’re usually not the first thing that comes to mind when you go grocery shopping, but they’re incredibly healthy! They’re rich in minerals and dietary fiber, but more importantly, they contain high levels of an antioxidant called chlorogenic acid. This antioxidant has been linked to reduced inflammation, which in turn can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. While you can cook artichokes however you want, boiling or steaming them can increase their antioxidant levels by eight and fifteen times respectively! So try these cooking methods and add them as a side to your favorite dishes to increase the nutritional value of your meals.
Red cabbage, or purple cabbage, is another nutritional powerhouse that is not talked about much. It’s very rich in antioxidants, as well as vitamins C, A, and K. It contains the same type of antioxidant as berries, which is anthocyanin, known for reducing LDL cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Vitamin C in particular is also an antioxidant, and it helps support your immune system and keep your skin healthy. Just like with artichokes, boiling red cabbage may increase its antioxidant levels significantly, but steaming it may reduce it. You can pair these two vegetables together along with some of your other favorite ones to make a veggie meal that is high in antioxidants.
These are just a few foods high in antioxidants. Others you should add to your grocery list include bell peppers, citrus fruits, papaya, sweet potatoes, apricots, and watermelon.
The bottom line is: prioritize whole foods to get every nutrient that you need and really benefit from their antioxidant properties. And if you choose to take supplements, ask your dietitian for medical advice first, and do it in moderation without replacing a healthy diet, because your body needs more than antioxidants to function properly and whole foods offer the whole package while also being incredibly delicious!