The hero in this story about bad-guy free radicals? Antioxidants. But antioxidant supplements aren’t the way to go.

Share story

On Nutrition

It’s like something out of a Halloween horror movie: free radicals roaming inside our bodies, damaging our cells and our DNA by oxidizing them. (What’s oxidation? Think rust. And for the science geeks, free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron.) This is legitimately scary, since once free-radical damage starts, it can lead to a chain reaction that contributes to cancer and other health problems.

But like a more nuanced horror-movie villain, free radicals aren’t all bad.

Free radicals are a byproduct of some normal bodily functions — including eating and breathing — and they actually play an important role in many processes in our cells. What’s not good are the free radicals we’re exposed to from environmental toxins, household chemicals and cigarette smoke — because when free-radical levels climb too high, that’s where trouble starts.

In case you haven’t guessed the plot, antioxidants are the hero in our movie. Antioxidants — which include vitamins A, C and E, as well as beta-carotene and the mineral selenium — neutralize free radicals so they can’t continue their spree. As with free radicals, we get our antioxidants from inside and outside. Our body makes some powerful antioxidants, and we get more from vegetables, fruits and other plant foods. Since you’re the scriptwriter of your life, protect yourself from the free-radical boogeyman by eating a plant-based diet and limiting or avoiding these dietary sources of free radicals:

Fats and oils. Fats and oils can become oxidized from exposure to light, air or heat. Not only does this create free radicals, but it also causes the unpleasant odors and flavor that we associate with rancidity. When you heat fats or oils to high temperatures, as with deep-frying, they can become oxidized, creating free radicals. This effect is amplified when cooking fats are reused, as they may be in restaurants. For this reason, don’t use these delicate, but otherwise healthful, oils for cooking: flaxseed oil and unrefined nut and seed oils (walnut, hazelnut, pumpkin seed).

Cooked and processed meats. Meat contains fat, which can become oxidized when cooked at high temperatures. The iron in meat can also become oxidized. Preservatives used in processed meats — including sausages, bacon, ham, pepperoni, hot dogs, salami, corned beef and many deli meats — may also create free radicals. For that reason, and because cooking meat at high heat can create advanced glycation end products (AGEs), limit or avoid processed meats, and if you’re planning to grill, choose leaner cuts of meat and marinate them. How to have your steak and eat it, too, so to speak.

Alcohol. Yes, moderate alcohol intake has been linked to health benefits, although there’s been some backpedaling on that. One reason is that alcohol increases the risk of cancer, in part because it creates free radicals. Experts recommend that individuals who do drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. While moderate alcohol intake may have some heart health benefits, weigh this against the additional cancer risk.

Antioxidant supplements. Does this one surprise you? Although antioxidants from food can help neutralize free radicals, some studies of antioxidant supplements suggest that antioxidants may be harmful when taken out of their natural context. It’s possible that a high dose of antioxidants may actually promote oxidation — in other words, too much of a good thing isn’t better. For this reason, the National Cancer Institute and the American Institute for Cancer Research both recommend using antioxidant supplements with caution.