You hear about antioxidants all the time when you're reading about great, healthy superfoods. They all have them. But what is an antioxidant and what does it do?

Here's a good basic explanation, a sort of "Science of Antioxidants 101." To boil it down to even simpler terms, atoms, which hook up to form molecules, contain neutrons, protons and electrons. If an electron is lost, it forms a free radical, which can damage a molecule and that damaged molecule can, in turn, damage others, triggering a disease reaction. Electrons are being lost all the time during metabolism, which could cause a lot of harm to our bodies—except that antioxidants step in and replace some of those electrons. So we really need to be getting some antioxidants in our diet.

Berries are one of the best sources of antioxidants, especially organic blueberries like these.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

We also need some free radicals in our body but an excess of them throws things out of balance. The list of things that can cause this imbalance probably won't surprise you. At the top of the list are environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke, air pollution and pesticides. Alcohol is another trigger, along with infections, high blood sugar levels, too much sun exposure and even too much exercise. We can also throw the balance off by over-consuming certain vitamins and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The result can be heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases, and a deterioration in overall health.

Naturally then, you're going to want to consume things that are rich in antioxidants like flavanoids, vitamin C and vitamin E. That's going to be primarily plant-based foods, along with green tea, coffee and—you'll be happy to hear—dark chocolate.

What are some of the plant foods you should include in your diet? Berries are a big winner. All kinds of berries are a great source of antioxidants including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and cranberries. Beans, especially pinto beans and red beans, are also rich in antioxidants. Apples, plums, grapes, cherries, potatoes, green vegetables, whole grains and pecans also rank high on the list.

But don't rely on a single favorite food. Different antioxidants work in different ways and we need a variety of them. That's why nature-created complex compounds found in good-for-you foods are always going to be a better choice than supplements.

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