What Are Antioxidants? What You Should Know

Antioxidants are kind of like some reality TV stars. It feels like you hear about them all the time, and yet, you aren't totally sure what all the hype is for.

While psuedo-celebrities might always be a mystery, there's plenty to know about antioxidants—and what they might mean for your health. Here's a brief look at what antioxidants actually are, how they work, and whether they really live up to all the healthy hoopla that's out there.

What Are Antioxidants?

To understand what antioxidants are and how they work, it's helpful to know a bit about how oxidation affects the cells in our body. Our bodies generate energy by burning fuel from food with oxygen that we breathe. Of course, that process is necessary in order to stay alive, but it produces harmful byproducts called free radicals that can cause damage to cells. Over time, free radical exposure causes us to age, and puts us at higher risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

So what are antioxidants? Antioxidants are substances that work to fight oxidation caused by free radicals. Sources of antioxidants include foods that are rich with vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. Luckily, they're found in a lot of foods—including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Some antioxidants, like selenium, are even found in things like beef, poultry, eggs, and cheese, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

How Do They Help?

The buzz surrounding antioxidants started back in the 1990s when scientists first started learning about the relationship between free radicals and chronic diseases. They realized that if free radicals are responsible for causing diseases, and antioxidants can help fight free radicals, then perhaps antioxidants could prevent people from getting sick—or at least help them stay healthier for longer.

To find out if that was true, researchers started testing whether individual antioxidants could be used to fight disease. But unfortunately, the results have been mixed. While a few studies have linked antioxidant consumption to lower rates of cognitive decline and deaths related to heart disease, most of the findings have been inconclusive or downright disappointing, according to experts at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

That doesn't mean that antioxidants are useless, though. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, and there's plenty of research that says that consuming these foods can lower the risk of many diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health. But eating fruits and vegetables, as well as other antioxidant-rich foods, is different from taking a vitamin C or lycopene supplement, which is what's often done in antioxidant studies. Whole foods contain an array of beneficial compounds, and it could be that these compounds—antioxidants included—work best when they're consumed together. According to experts, in order to learn more about the role that antioxidants might play in fighting or preventing diseases, more studies are needed.

Antioxidants are most likely not a cure-all, and experts still have a lot to learn about how they can impact our health. Still, it's important to make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans the main components of your diet. Not only do they deliver antioxidants, but they also offer a range of other beneficial nutrients, and this combination may play an important role in helping you feel your best.