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What Are Antioxidants & What Do They Do?

Antioxidants are compounds that help prevent unstable molecules, called free radicals, from damaging your cells. Because they limit this damage, called oxidative stress, they may have beneficial health effects. Some examples of antioxidants include selenium, vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains are particularly good sources of antioxidants. Good foods to eat to increase your antioxidant intake include beta-carotene sources such as carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach; lutien and zeaxanthin sources such as spinach, winter squash and peas; foods with vitamin C such as orange juice, peaches, peppers and broccoli; vitamin A foods such as eggs, carrots, pumpkin and kale; vitamin E foods such as sunflower seeds, olive oil and almonds; and selenium sources such as Brazil nuts, tuna and barley.

Antioxidants may lower your risk of developing a number of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and eye disease. However, results of studies on the effectiveness of taking antioxidant supplements are mixed, with some showing that these supplements are beneficial, and others showing that they may actually increase your risk for these conditions, according to an October 2009 article in "Diabetes Forecast."

Large doses of antioxidant supplements may be the cause of mixed results of scientific studies. Consuming too much of these compounds may prevent your body from effectively fighting free radicals on its own, notes associate professor Trey Ibeker, Ph.D. of the University of California-San Diego. His research shows that some oxidative stress may be beneficial. Ibeker states that "too much is not a good thing, and too little is not a good thing." Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats should adequately meet your needs for antioxidants.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants is better than taking large doses of antioxidant supplements, according to the American Heart Association. Foods contain combinations of nutrients that work together, while the antioxidant you choose to take might not be the one best suited for your purpose, or might not work for that purpose without certain other nutrients. Scientists still do not fully understand how antioxidants work.

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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.