You may be wondering, “What are antioxidants?” They seems to be everywhere these days, from food labels to dietary supplements! To explain these powerful substances simply, we first need to understand oxidation in our biological systems. Oxidation is a natural process that occurs from many different processes in our bodies, and as a result it creates free radicals. To understand free radicals, we need to take it back to simple chemistry and physiology:
Our bodies are made of many different types of cells. Each cell is made of many different types of molecules, molecules are made of one or more atoms, and atoms are composed of one or more elements that are joined together by chemical bonds. Each atom consists of a nucleus, neutrons, protons, and electrons. Protons are positively charged particles, while electrons are negatively charged. The number of protons inside the nucleus determine the number of electrons that surround the atom. The electrons orbit the atom in one or more rings or “levels”. The electrons are the substances that bond atoms together in order to form molecules. Structurally, the most important feature of an atom is the number of electrons it has in its outermost ring because that determines how it will behave and what kind of chemical reactions it can be involved in. The goal of these atoms and substances is to fill their outermost ring or level until it is full, and they do this by either gaining or losing electrons OR sharing its electrons by bonding together with other atoms that can complete its outer ring. When atoms share electrons, the atoms are bound together and it allows them to reach their maximum stability which is the goal.
Now, where do free radicals come into the picture? Well, normally these bonds that form do not split up where a molecule is left with an unpaired electron, however sometimes weak bonds split up and when that occurs, free radicals are formed. These free radicals are very unstable and are quick to react with other compounds because they are searching for their missing electron which they need to become stable. The problem with these free radicals is that they normally attack the nearest stable molecule and “steal” its electron! When the molecule that has been attacked loses its electron, IT becomes a free radical, and this destructive cycle continues. It can become harmful for the body if the process reaches a living cell, as free radicals can attack proteins, carbohydrates, and even our DNA! Now, our bodies can naturally create these free radicals from normal processes in the body, such as the immune system to neutralize viruses or bacteria, during metabolism, or simply breathing. Our bodies are also equipped to handle these free radicals. Ideally, the body’s own antioxidant enzymes and scavengers remove or deactivate them.
However, as we are exposed to more and more pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, stress and herbicides, these factors also create free radicals. When our bodies are overburdened with excessive free radical production, damage can occur as the body is not able to manage these free radicals as efficiently. Excessive levels of free radicals or free radicals in the wrong place can damage the body’s own cells. If DNA is damaged, it can result in disease and even cancer. Free radicals are also considered an important component in age-related diseases because free radical damage accumulates with age.
This is where antioxidants come into the picture to save the day! These are substances that are thought to neutralize free radicals. They decrease the damage done to cells by reducing the number of free radicals, or oxidants before they can damage the cell. The four most studied antioxidants are Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Beta-carotene, and Selenium.
Vitamin E is an important antioxidant, as it helps support the immune system, blocks formation of nitrosamines (which are suspected carcinogens, substances directly involved in causing Cancer), and repairs damaged cell membranes!
The best sources of Vitamin E include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy green veggies, vegetable oil, and fish liver oil.
Beta-carotene is also thought to lower the risk of cancer, especially that of the lungs, breast, cervix, uterine lining, gastrointestinal tract, and oral cavity.
The best sources of Beta-carotene include carrots, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, cantaloupe, peaches, and apricots.
Vitamin C is believed to defend against Cancer by deactivating the free radicals, boosting the function of the immune system, and detoxifying the body of pollutants before they can cause free radicals!
The best sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, leafy green veggies, strawberries, raw cabbage, and potatoes.
Selenium is thought to help fight cell damage by oxygen derived compounds, thus helping to protect against Cancer. The best way to get Selenium is through food, as large doses of the supplement can be toxic!
The best sources of Selenium include fish, shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken, and garlic. Veggies can be a good source as well, if they are grown in selenium rich soil.
Research on these antioxidants has often been indefinite, and this is perhaps due to the fact that we are studying synthetically produced antioxidants rather than naturally occurring ones, and that may not have the desired antioxidant effects as getting them from whole and natural foods. For this reason, it is important to choose natural sources of antioxidants and get as much as possible from food because the foods that are rich in antioxidants are also rich in phytochemicals, nutrients, and fiber! Through a balanced diet consisting of 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, we can insure to get the adequate intake of these antioxidant nutrients!
Plant foods are loaded with thousands of different kinds of antioxidants, and some are richer sources than others. We have included for you 10 antioxidant rich foods and how to maximize the antioxidants you can absorb from them:
Cocoa has almost twice the antioxidant count of red wine, and nearly three times that of green tea! It tops the list of antioxidant rich foods! Its components have shown to improve heart health by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and can even improve up your mood! It is important to choose non-Dutch-processed varieties of cocoa (raw cacao is best!), because when it is processed to remove its natural bitterness, it also destroys the components that are good for you. Dark chocolate is a great source, especially brands that are made with at least 70% cocoa and no milk content (the milk binds the flavonols which are good for you). Mix cocoa powder with stevia and non-fat organic milk or other non-dairy milk to make your own healthy hot chocolate!
#2 Tart Cherries
Tart cherries are a natural source of melatonin (an antioxidant hormone that helps to regulate sleep patterns), and are rich in antioxidants! Choose organic,as conventionally grown cherries are heavily sprayed and are regularly ranked as part of the “dirty dozen” by the Environmental Working Group. Organic cherry juice concentrate is available year-round in stores and is a rich source of antioxidants! You can also choose dried organic cherries, which are considerably higher in antioxidants than canned or frozen, but lower than juice concentrate.
Artichokes score high on the antioxidant scale, containing two substances thought to lower cholesterol, protect liver cells from toxins, enhance circulation, and aid digestion. Antioxidants are found in both the leaves and the heart!
Boiling artichokes magnifies their antioxidant profile by eight times over raw, but steaming them is best of all, as it boosts the antioxidants by a factor of 15! In peak season (March through May) preparing whole artichokes can be fun and cheap, albeit time consuming, but frozen artichoke hearts are available year-round and are just as rich in antioxidants!
Blueberries contain anthocyanins (which give the berry its vivid blue hue), as well as cholesterol-fighting substances, and the same substance found in cranberries that promotes urinary tract health. Wild blueberries are often ranked higher than cultivated blueberries for antioxidant activity. Wild blueberries are smaller, darker, and more intensely flavored than standard blueberries, and they also have a short season (August through September). Conveniently, frozen and dried wild blueberries are available year-round, and their antioxidant levels are darn close to that of fresh ones! If you are buying cultivated blueberries, again be sure to choose organic as blueberries are on the Environmental Working Group’s list of fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue.
Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant that is responsible for their vibrant red color! Regular intake of foods high in lycopene may reduce risk of prostate, lung, and stomach cancers, as well as heart disease and macular degeneration. Remember to cook your tomatoes! Cooking breaks down the tomato cell walls, and releases the lycopene, allowing the body to absorb it! Since lycopene is fat-soluble, adding a bit of olive oil will boost absorption! If at all possible, can your own tomatoes in BPA-free glass containers, or freeze tomato puree in glass, then transfer to freezer bags. Canned tomato products are sealed with a BPA-rich product. (BPA has been shown to cause endocrine disruption and is banned in many countries but not the U.S.). Even organic brands have BPA, so look for BPA-free packaging!
Along with other cruciferous vegetables (those in the cabbage family), kale is rich in anti-cancer properties and keeps blood vessels healthy. It has also been shown to boost immune function, and promotes eye health! Cook kale lightly. Cooking kale increases its antioxidant score, but too much heat does the opposite! Lightly steam until soft, but still crisp. Chopping the kale also releases these beneficial compounds!
#7 Adzuki or Small Red Beans
These easy-to-digest legumes are filled with flavonoids, which may lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke! Many of the antioxidants in beans are water-soluble, so save the water you soaked your dried beans in, and use it to cook up a bean soup or stew. Do not use canned bean liquid; although it may be high in antioxidants, it is also incredibly high in sodium which does more harm than good!
#8 Açai Berry
Açai is an Amazonian staple, and is particularly high in anthocyanins, which are responsible for the açai berry’s deep purple color! Anthocyanins battle cancer, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, obesity, and other age-related illnesses. Flash-frozen açai berry pulp (sold in the frozen fruit section), is higher in antioxidants than most juices, which are usually blended with other fruits.
Yes, an apple a day may keep the doctor away! Not only are they high in fiber, apples are also packed with polyphenols, which lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and protect against breast, colon, liver, and digestive cancers! They may benefit the brain and guard against Alzheimer’s disease, too! Be sure to leave the skin on, as polyphenols are five times more abundant in the skin than in the flesh of the apple! Also, go for Red Delicious, which has a higher antioxidant rating than Granny Smith, Gala, or Fuji.
And choose organic! Apples are also on the “Dirty Dozen” list!
Pecans are the highest-scoring nuts on the antioxidant scale! They are rich in a form of vitamin E that prevents cholesterol from oxidizing, making them really effective in reducing “bad” cholesterol and increasing “good” cholesterol. To prevent the breakdown of antioxidants (as well as flavor and texture), you can keep the pecans in the refrigerator for up to nine months, or the freezer for up to two years!
So remember to eat your fruits and vegetables!