Antioxidant Foods and Cancer Prevention: Fact or Fiction?

Nutrition to Fight CancerAntioxidants are all the rage. Our news outlets put out one story after another — some claiming these powerful chemicals can help lower our risk of cancer, improve heart health and even have anti-aging properties — while others suggest antioxidants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Separating fact from fiction can be difficult and leave many of us scratching our heads.

How Antioxidants and Free Radicals Work Together

Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable molecules with an unpaired electron. To stabilize (oxidize), free radicals take electrons from other molecules, damaging them in the process and turning them into free radicals themselves. This triggers a cycle of cell damage and causes stress to your body.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. While we’re used to hearing about the harm free radicals can cause us, the truth is they’re also necessary for our health. They help our bodies fight infection, repair tissue injury and even fight aging. However, if high levels of free radicals are present in the body, they can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and more.

That’s where antioxidants come in. According to the National Cancer Institute, antioxidants are chemicals that can safely interact and neutralize free radicals in our bodies, lowering the overall amount and slowing oxidation.

The Best Sources of Antioxidants

Antioxidants occur naturally in many different types of food, including:

  • Dark green, leafy veggies, like kale spinach and collard greens
  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • Berries, including blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cherries
  • Green tea
  • Purple, blue and red grapes
  • Orange vegetables, including sweet potatoes, carrots and acorn squash
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, such as soybeans, lentils, black-eyed peas, black beans and kidney beans
  • Herbs and spices, like turmeric and garlic

Research has also recently studied whether antioxidant dietary supplements can offer the same boost as foods that have high levels of naturally occurring antioxidants. Most of this research has been inconclusive, leading to confusing headlines. Until we understand more, it’s best to choose foods high in antioxidants rather than supplements so you get the most benefits of these powerful chemicals.

Easy Steps for Adding Antioxidants to Your Diet

Boost your health by following these simple tips:

  • Add berries to oats or yogurt at breakfast
  • Try making a smoothie with berries, cherries, spinach and a splash of coconut water or 100 percent juice
  • Grab whole grain breads and buns
  • Challenge yourself to try one new fruit or vegetable high in antioxidants at least once a week
  • Fill your plate with fresh fruits and veggies
  • Treat yourself to a cup of green tea
  • Add healthy herbs and spices to veggies or meat

Learn More

Navigating the ins and outs of antioxidants and how they can benefit your health can be confusing. A dietitian can help answer questions and create a customized nutrition plan that meets your needs. At Winship Cancer Institute, we have a team of dietitians available to support patients before, during and after treatment.

Learn more about our services or schedule an appointment with a dietitian by calling 404-686-4441.

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center for Georgia — the highest designation given by the NCI to cancer centers in the nation. Winship offers expertise in cancer research, prevention, detection and treatment with the most advanced therapies. Winship is where you get treatments years before others can. Our expert team coordinates every detail of your visit to meet your individualized treatment plan. Visit or call 1-888-WINSHIP for an appointment.

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