You probably hear a lot about “antioxidants” and “antioxidant foods.” There’s good reason these nutrients are trending: they offer many benefits for the body, and they’re found in some of the most delicious and colorful foods! Learn more about antioxidants, their benefits and how to include them in your diet.
What are antioxidants?
In simple terms, antioxidants are chemical compounds that protect cells in the body. Antioxidants defend against free radicals, which are molecules produced as a result of normal bodily functions when the body is exposed to sunlight, pesticides and other pollutants. Accumulation of free radicals creates oxidative stress and can damage healthy cells, thus increasing risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and other medical conditions.
Benefits of antioxidants
Researchers are hard at work to fully understand the role of antioxidants in fighting oxidative stress and minimizing cell damage within the body. It’s believed that a diet rich in antioxidants results in an increase in antioxidants in the blood. Epidemiological prospective studies show higher intakes of antioxidant-rich foods are associated with a lower risk of chronic oxidative stress-related diseases.
Types of antioxidants
There are thousands of different substances that can act as antioxidants. Some well-known antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Carotenoids: beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin
- Minerals: selenium, zinc and manganese
- Phenolic compounds, including flavonoids, gingerol, polyphenolic acid and curcumin
Antioxidants are naturally occurring in whole foods, with plant-based foods contributing significantly more antioxidants to the diet as compared to non-plant foods. You can create a diet rich in these beneficial nutrients by regularly including the following antioxidant-rich foods in your routine.
1) Berries: These fruits, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, are rich in many antioxidants, particularly vitamin C and anthocyanins. If you’re worried berries will go bad before you use them, opt for a frozen blend. Not only does freezing berries extend their shelf-life, but research indicates the freezing process may improve the availability of antioxidants. Mix berries into Greek yogurt or oatmeal for a punch of natural sweetness. If you only finished half your carton of fresh berries, rinse them off, pat them dry and freeze the rest. Enjoy as a nice frozen treat whenever you get a sweet tooth!
2) Dark green vegetables: There’s no denying the nutritional power of dark green vegetables. Kale, spinach and collard greens (to name a few) are nutritionally dense, meaning they are low in calories but loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These leafy greens are particularly high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two types of carotenoids that may enhance eye health by protecting against age-related macular generation and cataracts. Add leafy greens to a smoothie or scrambled eggs and start your morning with antioxidant protection.
3) Dark chocolate: Looking for a way to satisfy your sweet tooth? Reach for a piece of dark chocolate! Dark chocolate is high in flavonoids, which are phenolic compounds that may help to reduce blood pressure in healthy adults. Look for bars with higher cocoa content, as this is indicative of a higher antioxidant content.
4) Whole grains and nuts: Not only are they delicious, they’re also high in vitamin E, a vitamin whose main role in the body is to act as an antioxidant. Vitamin E works with vitamin C and other antioxidants to protect against chronic diseases. Snack on ¼ cup of raw almonds and piece of fruit for a blast of antioxidants midmorning. For a nutrient-rich lunch, spread 2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter on a slice of 100% whole wheat bread.
5) Citrus fruits: Refresh your diet with the addition of oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes. Jam packed with antioxidant-rich flavonoids, research indicates daily consumption of citrus fruits may boost brain health. Additionally, citrus fruits are high in carotenoids and a major source of vitamin C. Researchers have found citrus peels to contain the highest proportion of natural antioxidants. Use a zester to add the zest of your favorite citrus fruit to veggies and proteins for an instant bump in antioxidants.
6) Red, orange and deep-yellow vegetables: Similar to citrus fruits, these vibrant veggies are high in carotenoids (beta-carotene and lycopene) and vitamin C. Adequate intake of vitamin C may protect the body from infection, help with the production of collagen and increase absorption of iron. Munch on mini sweet peppers or baby carrots for an afternoon snack or stir in an extra can of diced tomatoes to pasta sauce. You can also enjoy a unique antioxidant-rich dessert with stuffed acorn squash.
7) Beans: High in phytonutrients and selenium, an essential mineral that serves as an antioxidant in the body, beans may surprisingly offer higher antioxidant power than some vegetables. Additionally, scientists believe beans may contain anti-cancer properties for certain types of cancers, including colorectal, breast and prostate. Add beans to chili or enjoy a meatless lunch with black bean burritos. Beans can also be a delicious (and nutritious!) addition to a party dip.
8) Green tea: Green tea is another source of antiodixants, specifically anthocyanins and a unique phenolic compound known as catechin. Of particular interest is matcha tea, a tea made from young green tea leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Known for its smooth and earthy flavor, matcha is made with the entire green tea leaf, so nutritional benefits may be amplified. In fact, one research study found a catechin called EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) to be over 100 times greater in concentration in matcha compared to traditional green tea.
Should I be taking a supplement?
Research is limited in supporting supplementation for antioxidants. In fact, some research has linked high-dose supplementation to increased health risks. A high dose of one nutrient may interfere with the body’s ability to utilize other important nutrients, and supplementation can interfere with well-known and commonly prescribed medications. Continue to use the “food first” approach and speak to your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist regarding supplementation.
How many antioxidant foods should I have in a day?
Whole foods are the ideal source of antioxidants. To ensure adequate antioxidant intake, aim for a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Choose to make at least half of your grains whole grains and enjoy plant-based sources of protein whenever possible. Remember, variety is key. Antioxidants work best in combination with other nutrients, including other antioxidants. No single food or antioxidant holds magical medical powers!
Last but not least, eat the (natural) rainbow! Many antioxidants come from pigments found in fruits and vegetables. Ensuring you have a variety of colors within your produce selection ensures you’re seeking optimal consumption of antioxidants.
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Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.