What Do Antioxidants Do to Your Body?

Most people have probably heard the word antioxidant. It is most commonly used when talking about nutrition and health. However, a lot of people do not know exactly what antioxidants are. They might also be confused about how they work or why they’re important. This article will break down what antioxidants are. We will also discuss what they do in the body, and which type of food you should eat more of. This will make sure you’re getting all the benefits of antioxidants!

Health Functions

To understand what antioxidants are, we first have to understand what their purpose is. Let’s start by breaking down the word antioxidant. “Anti” means against, and “oxidant” means oxidizing agent. In other words, an antioxidant is something that goes against, or countering, an oxidizing reaction. Why does this matter? Oxygen is an essential element for daily life. However, it can also trigger damaging reactions in the body. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) naturally pop up during cellular production and function. These are also known as free radicals. If these compounds build up, it can damage your DNA, proteins, and fat cells (lipids). Therefore, antioxidants prevent damage to the important compounds in your body. Free radical buildup also increases your oxidative stress. Did you know that oxidative stress may increase your risk for diseases such as cancer and diabetes? It may also lead to developing atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, and arthritis. Antioxidants convert ROS to non-radical species, reducing the effects of oxidative stress. This is why antioxidants are very important to the body.

Disease Risk Reduction

Did you know that free radicals can be beneficial to us too? They are known to help fight infections or illnesses. However, when they outnumber your antioxidants for too long, it may be damaging to your health. Both lifestyle and environmental factors may promote free radicals and oxidative stress. These include: smoking and drinking alcohol. Air pollution and radiation may also increase the free radicals in your body. Antioxidant deficiency, too low or high oxygen levels, high blood sugar, and other factors may also put you at risk.

We recommend increasing the amount of antioxidants in your body. In doing so, you are decreasing your risk for cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.

Groups at Risk

All individuals must eat more antioxidant rich food. We especially recommend it to those with cardiovascular disease or other chronic illnesses. If you are at risk for certain types of cancers, definitely eat more of them too.

Intake Recommendations

There are no set guidelines for the daily intake of antioxidants. However, eating more plant-based food can help increase your antioxidant levels. We recommend eating at least 4-5 servings of both fruit and vegetables per day. Eating more plant-based proteins like beans and legumes helps. Research shows that it might not be a good idea to get your antioxidants from supplements. The synthetic forms of antioxidants are not as effective as eating them from food (exogenous sources). In fact, high doses of these may have adverse effects. Some of them may lead to DNA and liver damage. We recommend getting your antioxidants from plant-based foods. These healthy whole foods provide you more dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Not only are you reducing your risk for long-term damage, you are also improving your overall health!

Dates and Low Fat Diet

There are a bunch of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great way to make sure you’re getting enough antioxidants. It also assures you that you’re eating generally healthy and nutritious food. The following are some of the highest sources of antioxidants found in food. They are listed in no particular order:

  1. Dates
    Ripe dates are a great source of antioxidants. The antioxidants found in dates include flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acid. These specific antioxidants help reduce risk for eye-related diseases. They may also help prevent certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart diseases. Dates are also rich in other nutrients such as fiber. They are very versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes.
  2. Dark Chocolate
    Did you know that cocoa contains more antioxidants than most other foods? That includes your fruits and vegetables! There are about 50mg of polyphenolic compounds in one gram of dark chocolate. That makes it a heavily concentrated source of antioxidants – more so than other food. Dark chocolate is also a good source of iron, magnesium, and zinc. Dark chocolate, especially those with more than 70% cocoa solids, is your best bet. However, we recommend limiting your consumption to 30 grams per day. This is to attain the benefit on lowered fasting blood sugar, hbA1C, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  3. Raspberries
    Raspberries have a very high antioxidant activity. They have been found to potentially kill stomach, colon, and breast cancer cells. They may also reduce the risk for heart disease and inflammation. However, it is important to note that most of this research was conducted in test tubes. This may mean that the results do not transfer as strongly in humans. Nonetheless, adding raspberries to your diet is still a good idea. They are a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber.
  4. Artichokes
    Artichokes are rich in an antioxidant called chlorogenic acid. This antioxidant may reduce your risk for diseases linked to high oxidative stress such as cancer. As with many vegetables, how you cook them can impact their nutrient content. We recommend boiling or steaming artichoke instead of frying them. This will improve their antioxidant content.
  5. Pecans
    Pecans are another type of food that is high in antioxidant activity. They have been shown to improve your blood antioxidant levels. Getting just 20% of your daily calories from pecans can significantly increase your antioxidant levels. Pecans are also a good source of healthy fats. They may also help reduce your risk for heart disease.
  6. Kale
    Kale is a highly nutritious vegetable. It is rich in calcium, vitamin A, C, and K. Vitamins A and C are high in antioxidant activity. Did you know that red varieties of kale are less common? However, they actually have as much as twice the antioxidants compared to the regular variety. This is due to the anthocyanin antioxidants present in red fruits and vegetables.
  7. Blueberries
    Blueberries are often dubbed as a “superfood.”  This is due to their high antioxidant and nutrient concentration. In fact, blueberries may even have the highest antioxidant content compared to the more commonly eaten fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants in blueberries have been shown to reduce your risk for various diseases. These include neurodegenerative diseases and heart disease. They may also help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  8. Beans
    Beans belong to a group of inexpensive and versatile legumes. Different varieties of beans, such as pintos, contain different antioxidants. The antioxidants in beans can help reduce inflammation and slow the growth of different cancers. Beans are also high in fiber and can provide additional benefits.


There are a variety of reasons to include antioxidants in your diet. This includes decreasing your risk for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and other chronic illnesses. Antioxidants help reduce free radical levels. Therefore, it limits the damage happening in your bodies. They can be obtained from a variety of food sources. These include dates, dark chocolate, and berries. We recommend adding some or all of these in your diet. It will help improve your overall health in the long term!

Written by:
Allison Tallman, MS, RDN, CNSC
Registered Dietitian



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