- Marie Belzile-Davidson, MS, RDN, LD
How to add more antioxidants to your diet!
Antioxidants. You have likely heard of them, but what are they?
It seems like there is a general belief that antioxidants are beneficial for our health, but not a strong understanding as to what they are, what they do, and how to safely incorporate more in our diets.
We are going to walk through each of these points and by the end of this, you will be ready to educate your friends and family on antioxidants (or you can just share this blog post with them)!
An intro to antioxidants:
What are antioxidants? We love to geek out on science here at The Functional Kitchen, but we will keep things simple because there is no need to overcomplicate it!
Antioxidants are substances that can help prevent damage to our bodies at a molecular level. Antioxidants are not one single "thing." Several different substances can act as antioxidants, including vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant chemicals such as polyphenols, to name a few (2).
Why antioxidants are beneficial:
They work to essentially neutralize oxidants, sometimes called free radicals (2). When we have too many oxidants circulating in our bodies, known as oxidative stress, it can lead to cell damage (2). Over time, oxidative stress can lead to chronic disease and is thought to play a role in cancer, cardiovascular disease, eye diseases, diabetes, and more (1).
So why not avoid oxidants altogether if they can cause damage in high numbers? Well, we cannot totally avoid oxidants because some are naturally produced in our bodies with normal activities of daily living, such as exercising and metabolizing food (1). However, our bodies are capable of producing some antioxidants to help neutralize these naturally-occurring free radicals in our bodies. Pretty neat, huh?
Ok so our bodies produce free radicals/oxidants and they also produce some antioxidants, great! Why do we need to incorporate more antioxidants into our diets then?
The truth is, we live in a world that exposes us daily to multiple things that can increase our oxidative stress. These include pollutants, cigarette smoke, sunlight, and more (1). This load of free radicals can be more than our bodies can handle on their own. The good news is that certain foods can supply us more antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals (2). In fact, dietary research suggests that eating antioxidant-rich foods can help protect against disease (1).
Good sources of antioxidants:
We know that antioxidants are key to helping us neutralize free radicals and reducing oxidative stress. How can we incorporate more antioxidants into our diets?
Several foods are rich in antioxidants, such as a wide array of fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes (1,2). Epidemiological research has shown that higher intakes of these aforementioned foods are associated with a lower risk of diseases related to chronic oxidative stress (2). We will cover a list of these foods shortly!
There are antioxidant supplements, along with various powders that claim to replace daily vegetable and/or fruit servings on the market. Could those products help us lower our oxidative stress? Well...research has not shown that antioxidant supplements are beneficial in preventing disease. While antioxidants are beneficial, we do not yet understand why they are not helpful in supplement form. It is possible that antioxidant-rich foods have other substances in them that allow us to reap the full benefits of the antioxidants (1).
So what foods can you focus on incorporating, day to day, to get in more antioxidants? Harvard's School of Public Health put together a great list of nutrients that have antioxidant properties and the foods they can be found in. Take a look (2)!
Vitamin C: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, leafy greens (turnip, mustard, beet, collards), honeydew, kale, kiwi, lemon, orange, papaya, snow peas, strawberries, sweet potato, tomatoes, and bell peppers (all colors)
Vitamin E: Almonds, avocado, Swiss chard, leafy greens (beet, mustard, turnip), peanuts, red peppers, spinach (boiled), and sunflower seeds
Carotenoids including beta-carotene and lycopene: Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, bell peppers, kale, mangos, turnip and collard greens, oranges, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, winter squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon
Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, beef, poultry, barley, brown rice
Zinc: Beef, poultry, oysters, shrimp, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lentils, cashews, fortified cereals
Phenolic compounds: Quercetin (apples, red wine, onions), catechins (tea, cocoa, berries), resveratrol (red and white wine, grapes, peanuts, berries), coumaric acid (spices, berries), anthocyanins (blueberries, strawberries)
Putting it all together:
Overall, we cannot avoid free radicals and oxidative stress. They are part of the body's natural processes and exist in the world we live in. We do not have much control over our exposure, but we have a lot of control over what we eat.
Incorporating more antioxidant-rich foods can help reduce the damage done to our cells by free radicals. Remember, we reap the most benefits from whole food sources rather than isolated supplements!
1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Antioxidants: In Depth. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth. Published 2013. Accessed 12/12, 2021.
2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Antioxidants. The Nutrition Source Web site. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/. Accessed 12/12, 2021.