By Keri Glassman, MS, RD
Ask Keri: What Are the Biggest Health Benefits of Antioxidants?
Keri Says: Regularly eating a variety of antioxidant-rich foods may lower your risk of certain cancers while also boosting your heart, brain, and skin health. And the health benefits of antioxidants don’t stop there.
In the grand scheme of nutrition science, antioxidants are just beginning to be researched in depth. The term “antioxidant” entered the public vocabulary in the 1990s. I wrote my book about antioxidants, The O2 Diet, in 2010—and so much has changed even since then.
Why Antioxidants Are So Powerful
In the most basic sense, antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which are “bad guy” atoms that can damage cells. Read up on how antioxidants work, here.
Since free radicals exist throughout the body, fighting them off with antioxidants can have wide-ranging effects that impact multiple systems. Think lower risk of chronic diseases, slowing the aging process, and more.
In other words, you get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to the health benefits of antioxidants. Here are a few of the most exciting.
The Health Benefits of Antioxidants, Explained
1. Reduced Cancer Risk
The relationship between antioxidants and cancer prevention is complicated. Many lab studies show how antioxidant molecules can kill tumor cells or prevent cancer cell proliferation, but that doesn’t always translate to “ingest this antioxidant, prevent this cancer” in a human. So far, the body of research doesn’t support taking antioxidant supplements for cancer prevention, but many studies do show benefits of eating foods rich in antioxidants.
For example, high intake of cruciferous vegetables, which contain multiple antioxidants, is associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer. A review of observational studies found eating antioxidant-rich nuts is associated with lower risk of colorectal, endometrial, and pancreatic cancer. And eating olive oil—a truly antioxidant-packed food—is associated with a lower risk of all cancers, including breast.
2. Improved Heart Health
Oxidation of cholesterol is a major factor in the development of heart disease because it contributes to the build-up of plaque on artery walls, which can slow down or block blood flow. And which nasty molecules contribute to oxidation? You guessed it: free radicals. Antioxidants, then, should help prevent that process.
However, just like with cancer prevention, the research so far suggests supplementing with antioxidants isn’t the best idea. One meta-analysis found vitamin E supplementation provided no benefit in terms of heart health and that beta-carotene supplementation may actually be harmful. However, diets high in antioxidant-rich foods—like leafy greens, a variety of veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—have been associated with lower risk of heart disease over and over. Sweet potatoes, for example, contain both vitamin E and beta-carotene. So, pop one in the oven instead of popping a pill.
3. Better Brain Health
Free radicals go after your brain, too, and as you age, it can be harder for nerve cells to defend themselves. That’s where antioxidants come in. Research suggests that flavonoids—found in the highest amounts in colorful fruits and vegetables like berries, spinach, and squash (and in coffee and dark chocolate!)—have the potential to “exert a multiplicity of neuroprotective actions within the brain, including a potential to protect neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins, an ability to suppress neuroinflammation, and the potential to promote memory, learning and cognitive function.” While more research is needed on exactly how eating a diet rich in flavonoids impacts brain health, one study found that older women who ate more blueberries and strawberries over time had a slower rate of memory decline than others. (The study was partially funded by the California Strawberry Commission.)
And another antioxidant, Vitamin E—found in leafy greens, nuts and seeds—shows promise in terms of protecting the brain from age-related memory loss. One study on patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease, for example, found that supplementing with Vitamin E slowed the progression of cognitive decline.
4. Better Skin
While free radicals are busy messing with your inner self, they also somehow find time to wreak havoc on your skin. (Jeez, chill guys.) Top dermatologists like Whitney Bowe, MD, explain that free radicals left to roam wild are associated with premature skin aging, skin cancer, and annoying conditions like acne. Antioxidants can stop them in their tracks. While you can use topical products that contain antioxidants, it also works to eat them. Vitamin C, for example, is an antioxidant that can help your body synthesize collagen. (Hello, citrus.) And lycopene, found in tomatoes, can work inside your cells to promote smoother skin.
Considering how antioxidants benefit both your entire body, I’m talking about a true inner-outer glow. The trick to reaping those benefits, as you’ve probably figured out by now, is regularly eating a variety of whole foods that contain all kinds of antioxidants—fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and of course…dark chocolate.