Antioxidants in a Nutshell

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By Diane Henderiks

From skin care to gasoline to the dinner table, antioxidants play a role. Ask anyone whether antioxidants are good for you and they will say "definitely." Follow that up with, "What are antioxidants?" and you might be surprised by the answer. Most people have no idea what antioxidants are but know they are good for you. Here is my quick and minimally confusing explanation of antioxidants:

Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that may protect your cells from the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules produced when your body breaks down food for energy, or by environmental toxins like cigarette smoke and radiation. Free radicals can damage cells, weaken the immune system and may play a role in heart disease, arthritis, cancer and other diseases.

Free radicals are thieves looking for electrons and will take them whenever available, leaving the cellular victim of this theft vulnerable to problems until those electrons are put back. Our bodies have a natural ability to replace these stolen electrons but we can also get them from the food we eat by way of "antioxidants." Antioxidants give electrons to free radicals so they don't have to commit the crime of stealing from healthy cells in our bodies.

There are numerous compounds that can act as antioxidants with Vitamin E, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, zinc, selenium and manganese being the most popular. Each one of these substances has a unique function and play different roles in the body so when it comes to food choices, variety is the key.

The more color you have on your plate, the more nutrition and potential antioxidant-wielding capacity you have. Foods contain so many substances that work together in ways that are not completely understood and I truly believe that science cannot extract everything from a food and turn it into a supplement. I recommend eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are all packed with antioxidants and other nutrients that help to keep us healthy.

Here are some antioxidant-rich compounds and some of the best food sources. Bon Appetit!

Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, greens (chard, collard, mustard, turnip), papaya, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, mangoes, pumpkin, bell peppers and nuts.

Vitamin C: kiwi, guava, berries, citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, honeydew, kale, mangoes, nectarines, papaya, snow peas, sweet potato and tomatoes.

Beta-carotene and other carotenoids: carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, spinach, apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, peppers, kale, mangoes, greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, squash, tangerines, tomatoes and watermelon.

Zinc: oysters, wheat germ, sesame seeds, lean red meat, dark chocolate, poultry, beans, nuts and seafood

Selenium: Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, fish, beef, eggs, poultry, mushrooms, onions and whole grains

Manganese: herbs and spices, wheat germ, nuts, mollusks, seeds, edamame and cocoa powder

Other super antioxidant rich foods: onions, Concord grapes, celery, eggplant, tea, apples, red wine, plums, apples, berries, sprouts.

Diane Henderiks is a registered dietitian, the founder of and a "Good Morning America" health contributor.