You might already know about foods you should be eating for your heart, or foods that help your gut—but what about the foods that help stop cell damage? Those would be the ones packed with antioxidants—and we bet you’ve heard this buzzy term before.

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Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that help prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidants. (Get it? Anti-oxidants.) They occur naturally in fruits and vegetables and while there are thousands of antioxidant compounds out there, the ones that you hear about most are vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, E, and lycopene.

Opposing antioxidants on the battlefield of your cell health are the oxidants.

“Oxidants are free radicals which you find in the environment, but they're also produced naturally in your body,” says Diane McKay, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher at Tufts University’s Antioxidants Research Laboratory. In other words, free radicals are made as your cells change—but too many free radicals building up in your system can cause serious damage and may contribute to certain cancers and heart disease.Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress as a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer. Khansari N, Shakiba Y, Mahmoudi M. Recent patents on inflammation & allergy drug discovery, 2009, Mar.;3(1):1872-213X. In addition to your body making free radicals, you’re also hit with oxidants daily from things like air pollution, cigarette smoke, and alcohol, McKay says. Gross.

The Need-to-Know

The solution seems obvious: Just overload your body with antioxidants to counteract the negative oxidants, right? It’s not that simple.

“You want to have a balance of antioxidants to oxidants,” McKay says.

In the 1990s, antioxidants made headlines as researchers began discovering the link between free radicals and myriad chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and vision loss. But as they began careful testing, the food industry jumped on the idea. Soon “cancer-fighting” supplements and “antioxidant-enriched” foods flooded the market. Today, despite little science to support many of the claims, these labels still exist. And with them, a mixed reputation.

“I think the biggest misconception about antioxidants is that it’s a fancy buzzword or a marketing tactic,” says Cassie Bjork, R.D., the dietitian behind Healthy Simple Life. But in reality? “Antioxidants load your cells and protect you from disease naturally, with no side effects.”

The catch, researchers found, is that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. “If you have too many antioxidants, which is what you can get from really high doses of supplements, you suppress your body's own ability to turn on it's antioxidant defense system,” McKay says. “It's really hard to get too much from your diet, but it's really easy to get too much from high supplements—and that inhibits your body's own internal mechanism.”

In fact, not only do antioxidant supplements largely have a placebo effect, some studies have found they may have a negative effect on certain diseases, like lung and skin cancers.Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD. The New England journal of medicine, 1996, May.;334(18):0028-4793. Antioxidant supplementation increases the risk of skin cancers in women but not in men. Hercberg S, Ezzedine K, Guinot C. The Journal of nutrition, 2007, Oct.;137(9):0022-3166. The SU.VI.MAX Study: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the health effects of antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Hercberg S, Galan P, Preziosi P. Archives of internal medicine, 2004, Dec.;164(21):0003-9926. Additionally, supplements aren’t subject to FDA approval, Bjork says. If you do decide to take one, “look for one that says pharmaceutical grade on the label,” she says. “Those will be high quality supplements.”

However both Bjork and McKay emphasized that getting antioxidants naturally, from a healthy diet, is the best way to go.

Your Action Plan

So maybe antioxidants aren’t your magic bullet to immortality—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them. To the contrary, eating a diverse, antioxidant-rich diet has plenty of benefits. And though you’ve probably heard about the celebrity of the antioxidant world before: blueberries—they’re not your only option. In fact, every plant-based food or beverage has some antioxidant properties. Everything from raspberries to green tea, to black pepper and cocoa.

“I love red peppers, kiwis, pumpkin—but I think the unexpected one is coffee,” Bjork says. While she admits it’s not the richest source, it is one of the top sources of antioxidants in terms of popularity.

Whenever you have the option, say with foods such as apples, potatoes, or grapes, eat them the skin on, McKay says, since that’s where all phytochemical properties are found. (Phytochemicals are what lead to those helpful antioxidant effects in your body.)

Another unexpected source? Herbs and spices. “We consume them in small amounts, but they’re usually dried, so they’re more concentrated,” McKay says. “You’re not going to get a whole lot by sprinkling on some oregano once; but if you do that regularly, it does add up.”

When in doubt, eating a wide variety of colors in fruits and veggies is a good way to go. And if you’d like to start taking a supplement regularly, it’s always a good idea to run it by your health provider first.

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