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Understanding Antioxidants

These compounds may help protect our cells from disease-causing damage
Written by 
Meghan Rabbitt
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Antioxidants have been talked about for years, so odds are you know they’re good for you. You buy berries at the grocery store because of their antioxidant punch. Maybe you even look for antioxidants in your skincare products. And while these substances are indeed crucial for living a long, healthy life, can you explain exactly what they are and why they’re so beneficial? While the message about the importance of antioxidants has come through loud and clear—they help prevent cancer, are anti-aging, the list goes on—there remains much confusion about how, exactly, they work in the body, and what the ideal ways are to boost them.

In a nutshell, “antioxidant” is a catchall term for different types of compounds found in foods and produced by our bodies that may protect our cells from damage. This damage is caused by molecules called free radicals that can be harmful in excess.

Our bodies make free radicals every second of every day as a result of their natural processes. “Think of your body burning food for fuel like burning gas in your car’s cylinder,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “The ‘sparks’ that fly off the fire are dangerous free radicals.” Our bodies can also take in free radicals from toxins (like cigarettes and pollution) or produce them in response to exposure to them. Free radicals can be dangerous: They have an odd number of electrons, and when they bounce around your cells, they rob electrons from healthy cells to try to become stable again. “This causes a lot of damage on the cellular level,” Dr. Liponis says.  

In optimal health, free radicals and antioxidants are balanced. But if the body has to deal with more free radicals than it’s capable of handling—which is common due to poor diet, lack of exercise and pollution levels—something called oxidative stress results, which may trigger a number of health issues. These include inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis), heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers. Oxidative stress is also involved in the process of aging.

The good news? “Our bodies know how dangerous free radicals are,” Dr. Lipnois says. The antioxidants we produce, as well as those we consume, interact with free radicals to neutralize their damage. That's why lowering our production of free radicals, feeding the body antioxidants and starting habits that prompt the body to make more of them on its own is crucial. Dr. Liponis explains how:

Make Your Calories Count

Since digesting food produces free radicals, you might assume that eating less is a good strategy. While taking in fewer calories can help your body create fewer free radicals, consuming fewer calories than your body needs can impact your metabolism and have other harmful effects. A better strategy? Reach your daily calorie goals, but choose to do so by eating foods that have a lot of nutrients, Dr. Liponis advises. When it comes to foods with a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio (NCR), think fiber- and water-rich fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Nuts and seeds are medium NCR foods, which makes them good choices in moderation. In addition to helping keep your free radical count low, these foods will also fill you up and help you maintain a healthy weight. Low NCR foods to avoid? Refined grains and sugary snacks and drinks.

Eat the Rainbow

There’s a surprisingly simple way to figure out how antioxidant-rich your diet is: The more colorful your plate, the better off you are. “It’s the pigments in food that actually have the antioxidant properties, and the colors work together,” Dr. Liponis says. He explains: “Neutralizing free radicals is like a game of hot potato. Each antioxidant grabs a free radical, cools it off and hands it off to another antioxidant, each time making the free radical ‘cooler’ and less dangerous, until it can ultimately be excreted by the body.” Colorful foods also almost always have a high NCR, so they’ll also produce fewer free radicals than more calorie-dense foods when you eat them. High NCR foods are also likely to contain vitamins C, E and beta-carotene and the mineral selenium, which are also antioxidants. Our article, Eating a Colorful Diet for Cancer Prevention, offers more benefits and advice.


Yes, even working out produces free radicals in the body. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active—quite the opposite. As you work out, your body actually makes antioxidants to counter the production of these harmful substances. In fact, because exercise creates such an onslaught of free radicals—even more than when we digest food—exercising actually tricks the body into making extra antioxidants. “Exercise seems to be one of the strongest ways to get your body to produce its own antioxidants,” Dr. Liponis points out. It’s important to make your exercise regular, since it takes time for the body to adapt to physical activity with extra antioxidant production.

A Note About Supplements

While you might be tempted to buy supplements to boost your antioxidant intake, it’s wise to be cautious. There’s not enough evidence proving antioxidant supplements work to prevent disease, and some studies show that synthetic antioxidants may actually be dangerous in certain cases. Instead, focus on eating whole foods to get the dietary antioxidants your body needs. 


National Cancer Institute
National Institute on Aging
Pharmacognocy Review (July–December 2010)
Rice University
About the author 
Meghan Rabbitt is an editor and writer whose work has been published in Women’s Health, Fitness, Shape, Runner’s World, Prevention, Parents and Weight Watchers.