Translation: The processes of being alive generates byproducts in your cells that can lead to not feeling great. The good news is a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is full of vitamins and minerals that can clean up your free radicals.
Meet your new health hero, the antioxidant. The big three antioxidant nutrients are vitamin A (beta carotene), vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Free radicals are created by your cells during the normal process of exercising and converting food into energy. Free radicals are also created during exposure to environmental conditions like sunlight, cigarette smoke, or pollution.
Free radicals cause oxidative stress and lead to cell damage, which could play a part in diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and eye diseases.
Where’s your hero antioxidant when you need it? Hiding in plain sight, inside a diet full of fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, dairy, and whole grains!
Think orange for crunchy carotenoids
Vitamin A or beta-carotene is necessary for good vision, immunity, reproduction, and healthy organs. People who eat a diet rich in beta-carotene seem to have a lower risk of some kinds of cancer.
However, smokers who take high doses of beta-carotene have a higher risk of lung cancer. Other research shows antioxidant supplements may help slow vision loss due to age-related macular degeneration.
Here are some good food sources of vitamin A or beta-carotene:
- green leafy vegetables, broccoli, squash, and carrots
- sweet potato
- fruits like cantaloupe, apricots, and mangos (have you noticed the orange theme?)
- breakfast cereals with vitamin A added
- organ meats like beef liver
C is for citrus
We need vitamin C for a strong immune system, to fight free radicals, to build collagen, and to absorb iron.
Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables with vitamin C is associated with a lower risk of some cancers. Preliminary research indicates high doses of vitamin C could shrink tumors in animals and test tubes.
Because oxidative damage contributes to cardiovascular disease, researchers believe a diet high in vitamin C and other antioxidants may be protective. Vitamin C may slow progression of macular degeneration.
Eat these foods for a good dose of C:
- citrus fruits and juices kiwi
- red and green peppers
- baked potato
Vitamin E supports the immune system and prevents blood clotting. Dietary sources of vitamin E include:
- vegetable oils, like wheat germ, sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean
- nuts and seeds
- green vegetables
- fortified cereal, juice, and other foods with vitamin E added
Zinc outside the box
Zinc supports the immune system and helps the body build proteins and DNA. It also helps with healing and the senses of taste and smell.
The following foods are good sources of zinc:
- red meat
- fortified cereals
- beans nuts
- whole grains
Besides protecting your body from free radical damage and infection, selenium is important for reproduction, DNA production, and thyroid function.
Adults need 55 micrograms per day, but no more than 400 micrograms. Pregnant women should get 60 micrograms, and breastfeeding women need 70 micrograms.
People who consume less selenium are at higher risk of developing cancer of the colon, rectum, prostate, bladder, lung, esophagus, stomach, and skin, but it’s unclear whether taking supplements would lower risk.
People with low selenium levels can have thyroid problems, but again, there’s not enough research to say whether taking supplements would help.
The best food sources of selenium are:
- seafood meateggs
- grain products like bread
Antioxidant showdown: pill form vs. food form
Eating a variety of foods is the best way to get most nutrients your body needs. Could you get a little extra vit C or vit E from a pill? Yeah, of course. There’s just not much scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of antioxidant supplements at preventing disease.
What’s the harm in a little pill?
Dietary supplements can cause side effects and may interact with prescription medications. For example, vitamin E supplements can increase bleeding in people who take blood thinners. Keep your health care provider up to speed on any supplements you decide to take.
This is where it gets risky
High doses of supplements can come with even higher risks. There’s a connection between taking high doses of beta-carotene and lung cancer in smokers. Vitamin E supplements may increase risk of prostate cancer and stroke. Stick to doses that are recommended by your doctor.
Not necessarily great for athletic performance
Because free radicals are produced during exercise, you might theorize that antioxidants would improve athletic performance.
A 2014 study of 54 young people assessed their performance during a training program while taking a daily dose of vitamins C and E. Study participants who took the vitamins rather than placebo had impaired adaptations in their muscles (though no impairment in performance was measured).
Taking vitamin C supplements
Vitamin C seems like a sort of pana-C-a, right? Take it to stop a cold virus, take it to boost your energy, take it to prevent disease? Well, it’s good stuff, but it’s not a cure-all. Here’s what science says.
Crush the common cold?
Regularly taking extra vitamin C does not seem to prevent colds, but there’s good news. It can make your cold shorter and milder than it would have been otherwise.
For people who get frequent colds, taking vitamin C is a relatively safe and inexpensive treatment that may make cold season a little more tolerable.
A note to smokers
Because smoking depletes vitamin C, smokers need an extra 35 milligrams of vitamin C per day. That means aim for 125 milligrams per day if you’re a man who smokes and 110 milligrams per day if you’re a woman who smokes.
Why eating your antioxidants is best
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests these possible reasons antioxidant supplements don’t have as much health benefit as consuming foods with antioxidants:
- Other substances in fruits and vegetables may be responsible for health benefits.
- Smaller doses may be more effective than large doses.
- Chemical composition of vitamins is different in foods than in supplements.
- Different antioxidants may impact parts of the body and diseases differently.
- Maybe researchers don’t fully understand how free radicals work yet.
- Antioxidant supplementation may require long-term use to be effective.
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that help your body wrangle free radicals and prevent oxidative stress that can lead to cell damage and disease.
The main antioxidant nutrients are vitamin A/beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium.
Above we’ve listed the best food sources for each nutrient. Antioxidants are also available in supplement form, but research on their effectiveness is inconsistent. Always inform your doctor if you do decide to start taking a supplement.
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