The Power of Antioxidants
Why Your Body Needs Antioxidants and the Best Sources for Them
Fresh blueberries sprinkled with cinnamon. Kidney beans spiced with turmeric and cumin. Carrots and spinach, steamed with parsley and oregano. They are all yummy, but they are also powerful.
These foods are rich in superhero molecules known as antioxidants— a key reason why fruits, vegetables, and grains are so good for us.
You already know that when you choose a plant-rich diet, you’re “fueling” your body. For decades, scientists have believed1 that the antioxidants in plants are key to maintaining healthy cells. Ensuring our diets are chock-full of them can, in turn, lead to a healthier you.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are the nutrient-rich chemicals that naturally occur in healthy, whole foods—and that our bodies rely on to survive.
Over time, a variety of factors—pollution, pesticides, smoking, intense exercise, lack of sleep, other stresses, and simply the daily of busy lives—take a toll on our healthy cells by oxidizing them. When cells become oxidized, they are robbed of energy, and weaken into energy-draining, unstable molecules called free radicals.2
Seeking fortification, those diminished molecules set off in search of healthier molecules. And that can trigger a chain reaction of destruction, destabilizing other cells in their path.
Consider what happens when you cut an apple or potato and leave it out on the counter—or, if you sit out too long in the sun. This is an example of oxidization, and an oxidized cell can no longer perform essential functions, like eliminating toxic wastes from the body.
Ultimately, this oxidative stress can lead to a host of problems, including heart disease, vision loss, cancer—and aging.3
That’s where antioxidants play a crucial role in health.
How do Antioxidants Work?
Once we ingest and digest antioxidants, they travel through our bloodstreams and collide with the free radicals, offering up vital energy and neutralizing their potentially hazardous effects.
Antioxidants are also said to be capable of armoring our bodies against further damage by enhancing our immune systems. Some studies have shown antioxidants can even prevent a recurrence of cancer, or delay the progression of disease.4
Of course, there’s no way to control all the damage that can be done by free radicals. But we can offset cellular destruction by introducing enough antioxidants into our diets.
What are the Best Ways to Get Antioxidants?
Thousands of naturally occurring antioxidants exist in the healthy, whole foods we can choose to eat.5 You’re likely familiar with some of them—lycopene, excellent for heart and prostate health; beta-carotene, necessary for the immune system, vision, and skin and bone health; resveratrol, to ward off inflammation; and vitamins A (neurological function,) C (excellent for connective tissue) and E (which can protect against toxins).
Yet, experts say unless you have specific health issues, don’t be overly daunted by the names or properties of specific antioxidants. Each day, simply consume two cups of fruit, as well as two and a half cups of vegetables, to fortify your body with a variety of these health-boosting substances. It’s important to mix up your diet, since every antioxidant is different.
Stumped by how to choose? Follow the rainbow, and fill your plate at each meal with a variety of fruits and vegetables based on color.
To maximize the health benefits, avoid peeling, don’t soak, and cook quickly on a high heat.6 Experiment with herbs and spices you might not have used before, like cilantro or turmeric. Coffee, green tea, red wine, and dark chocolate are also rich in antioxidants. Nuts and whole grains are rich in the antioxidant mineral Selenium.
If you’re curious about the antioxidant properties of specific foods, the National Institute of Aging along with Tufts University developed the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity test.7
Cranberries, artichokes, and pecans rank among the most antioxidant-rich. Scientists caution that a high score doesn’t necessarily equal the highest health benefit, though. Each of us needs different foods, and absorbs nutrients at different rates.
While eating a variety of healthy foods is the key way to introduce antioxidants into our systems, nutritional supplements can add to what we ingest.8
As always, it’s best to avoid processed, packaged foods. And to be sure to get plenty of sleep and exercise.
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1. “Antioxidants: In Depth,” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm
2. “Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype,” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/
3. Dr. Mark A. Jenkins, “Antioxidants and Free Radicals,” SportsMedWeb, Rice University http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/antiox.html
4. Solmaz Barazesh, “Probing Question: How Do Antioxidants Work?,” Penn State News, http://news.psu.edu/story/141171/2008/08/18/research/probing-question-how-do-antioxidants-work
5. Produce for Better Living, “What Are Phytonutrients?” http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/what-are-phytochemicals
6. Rhona Pearce, “5 Easy Ways to Increase Your Daily Antioxidant Intake,” Mind Body Green https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-8094/5-easy-ways-to-increase-your-daily-antioxidant-intake.html
7. David B. Haytowitz and Seema Bhagwat, USDA Database for the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity of Selected Foods, Release 2, http://www.orac-info-portal.de/download/ORAC_R2.pdf
8. James Jackson, PhD, “Oxidants and Antioxidants: The Battle for Our Body,” Riordan Clinic Research Institute https://youtu.be/WnYL9OBz0oM