What Do Antioxidants Actually Do?

By Christy Piña

People always say, “Make sure to eat your fruit and vegetables,” and while that is absolutely something you should do, it is not because of the antioxidants in them. Antioxidant molecules have been found to counteract oxidative stress placed on the body by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that naturally form when your body converts food to energy and when you exercise. We are also exposed to free radicals with cigarette smoke, air pollution and sunlight. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, oxidative stress has been found to trigger cell damage and to play a role in diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cataracts.

While antioxidants have been found to counter those stresses, there is speculation about whether consuming large amounts of antioxidants would actually benefit health. There is also concern about how excessive antioxidants may have harmful effects on health.

The harmful effects tend to be connected to other things. For example, high doses of beta-carotene, which are in vegetables that also have high antioxidants, have been found to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Similarly, high doses of vitamin E may increase the chance of stroke and prostate cancer.

While many trials have shown that antioxidants themselves are not as beneficial as food companies portray, there have been some trials that showed their benefits. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “after 18 years of follow-up, the Physicians’ Health Study found that taking beta-carotene was associated with a modest reduction in the rate of cognitive decline.”

Fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which are made up of antioxidants, minerals, fibers and other natural substances, have proven to be beneficial in preventing chronic diseases, but it is the combination of all those things together, not strictly the antioxidants in them.


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