What Are Antioxidants and Why Do I Need Them?

Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize the cellular-damaging effects of free radicals. Here's how it works: Free radicals are produced naturally in your body, but when you exercise hard, your body pumps out more of them. Environmental factors such as pollution, the sun, cigarette smoke and herbicides can also spawn free radicals. The danger is that free-radical damage may lead to cancer. Antioxidants interact with and stabilize free radicals and may prevent some of the damage that they otherwise might cause. As an active person, more antioxidants may help you slow the aging process, ward off cancer and stress and promote good health.

Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods including nuts, grains and some meats, poultry and fish. The list below describes food sources of common antioxidants.

Vitamin A
Vitamin A is found in three main forms: vitamin A1, vitamin A2 and vitamin A3. Foods rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese.

Found in many foods that are orange in color, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin and mangos. Legumes, including collard greens, spinach, and kale, are also rich in beta-carotene.

Best known for its association with healthy eyes, lutein is abundant in green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach and kale.

A potent antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, blood oranges and other foods. Estimates suggest that 85 percent of American dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato products.

Vitamin C
Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C can be found in high abundance in many fruits (citrus), different vegetables (green peppers), and is also found in cereals, beef, poultry and fish.

Selenium is actually a mineral, not an antioxidant nutrient, but it is a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods such as rice and wheat are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries. However, in the United States, animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscle. In the United States, meats and bread are common sources of dietary selenium. Brazil nuts also contain large quantities of selenium.

Vitamin E
Also known as alpha-tocopherol, vitamin E is found in almonds; in many oils including wheat germ, safflower, corn and soybean oils; and is also found in mangos, nuts, broccoli and other foods.

Bottom line: Color your plate with green, orange, red, yellow and brown. The more color from fruits and veggies you have, the more likely you are going for natural sources of antioxidants.

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