Taking antioxidants is claimed to provide a number of potential health benefit By neutralizing free radicals, antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein may play a role in preventing diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Conclusive research demonstrating their benefits, however, is lacking.
One possible explanation for this is that most research conducted to evaluate the benefits of antioxidants has used supplements, such as vitamin tablets, rather than dietary sources of antioxidants. In fact, even though most antioxidant supplements are generally safe, some research has found that taking high dosages of certain ones, such as vitamin E, can actually be harmful.
One of the primary reasons that dietary sources appear to be a better way of getting antioxidants than supplements has to do with the array of antioxidants contained in foods. While a supplement may contain only one type of antioxidant, certain foods can contain hundreds. It appears likely that the benefits of antioxidants are best provided through the complex combinations that are present in the foods we eat.
Which foods are rich in antioxidants? 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 includes several important antioxidants and their most common food sources:
- Beta-carotene is found in abundance in foods that are orange or red in color, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, and squash. Dark green vegetables including broccoli, spinach and kale are also excellent sources.
- Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is contained in citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, dark green vegetables, red and yellow peppers, and in berries. Vitamin C is also found in cereals, beef, poultry, and fish.
- Vitamin E, or alpha-tocopherol, is found in vegetable oils such as olive, soybean, corn, cottonseed and safflower, nuts and nut butters, seeds, whole grains, wheat, wheat germ, brown rice, oatmeal, soybeans, sweet potatoes, and legumes (beans, lentils, split peas).
- Lycopene is most commonly obtained by eating tomatoes and tomato products. Other sources of this important antioxidant come from watermelon, pink grapefruit, and blood oranges.
- Lutein is one of 600 known naturally occurring carotenoids. It is thought to play a particularly important role in keeping the eyes safe from free radical-induced damage. Lutein is especially abundant in green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale.
- Selenium, while not technically an antioxidant, is a component of several important antioxidant enzymes. Good food sources of selenium include crab, liver, fish, poultry, and wheat.
- Vitamin A rich foods include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, broccoli, and butter.
Foods that are high in antioxidants offer a number of health benefits. In addition to the free-radical neutralizing effects of antioxidants, many of these are plant-based with the added benefits of being lower in fat with a high fiber content. While the American Heart Association does not recommend using antioxidant vitamin supplements until more complete data are available, it does recommend that people eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods daily from all the basic food groups.
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