Pro-oxidants & antioxidants

May 18, 2011 at 10:00 a.m. ET

We hear a lot about antioxidants these days. They're even touted on your favorite soft drinks. We did a little sleuthing to learn about antioxidants -- and their counterparts, pro-oxidants (aka, free radicals) -- and why you need both in your diet.

The breakdown

Antioxidants are vitamins and nutrients that have the ability to neutralize or oxidize evil pro-oxidants, often referred to as free radicals. Too many free radicals (from pollutants, cigarette smoke and sun overexposure) can lead to heart disease, Parkinson's, cell damage, early signs of aging and even cancer.

You don't want to eliminate pro-oxidants altogether, though. While pro-oxidants increase free radicals in the body, we actually need them in our systems for many reasons. For example, free radicals damage cancer cells just as well as they do healthy cells. Pro-oxidants also can generate inflammatory responses in our bodies that are essential to protecting our bodies and overall health.

Too much of a bad thing?

Too many free radicals are a bad thing, though, so that's where those powerhouse antioxidants come in. All antioxidants are not the same, so don't assume that packing your plate with antioxidant-rich blueberries every day will suffice. You need a wide variety of antioxidants (vitamins A, B, C, D, E etc.), from a variety of sources. Yes, fruits and vegetables are wonderful sources of antioxidants, but you'll find the antioxidants you need in other foods, too.

Beyond the produce aisle

Whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts are also great sources of antioxidants. Even animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs provide some, but they are garnered from the plants that the animals themselves are fed. So choose grass-fed meats and eggs from pasture-raised hens, which take in more antioxidants than their traditionally raised/fed counterparts.

Don't buy into the propaganda

Antioxidants are all the rage right now, and marketing campaigns are pulling out all the stops to promote the antioxidant properties in just about anything. Before you buy some packaged product just because it says it's loaded with antioxidants, read the label. A small amount of vitamin E in a soft drink is hardly worth it. The same goes for many processed foods that claim to be rich in antioxidants, and even antioxidant supplements. The simple truth is that you benefit much more from antioxidants from natural sources, such as those mentioned above.

Read more on fruit

Health benefits of apples
Health benefits of cranberries
Health benefits of blueberries