Antioxidants have been a hot nutrition topic for decades, one that has had staying power as other nutrition trends come and go. Why? Because while antioxidants can be overhyped at times, there is actual substance behind the hype.
Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals, which are substances that exist naturally in the body that can damage our cells and DNA. When you have more free radicals than antioxidants, this creates oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can accelerate aging and increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Your body does a pretty good job of keeping free radicals in check by producing its own antioxidants, but poor diet and exposure to cigarette smoke, pollution, radiation and environmental toxins can produce more free radicals than your body can handle. That’s why eating antioxidant-rich foods is important.
Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, and so are the minerals selenium and manganese. And then there are phytochemicals — naturally occurring substances in plants that have health benefits — many of which behave as antioxidants. These include carotenoids — such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin — as well as flavonoids, polyphenols, catechins and phytoestrogens. The good news is that a varied diet with a lot of plant foods will get you there. And by “plant foods,” I don’t just mean vegetables, although most people would benefit from eating more vegetables.
Fruit has the edge on the antioxidant front, especially deeply colorful, brightly pigmented fruits. That’s because many antioxidant phytochemicals are also pigments. One example is anthocyanins, a group of phytochemicals with red, blue or purple hues that are abundant in most berries and similarly colored produce. Think blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, pomegranates, dried and fresh purple plums, sour cherries and dried sweet cherries. Oranges and apples are good choices, too.
As with fruit, the vegetables that are most rich in antioxidants tend to be vibrantly hued: red cabbage, red peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, broccoli and dark leafy greens, as well as carrots, sweet potatoes and orange-fleshed winter squash. We have the carotenoids to thank for most of those beautiful colors.
Herbs and spices
It’s easy to overlook these flavor enhancers as just that — flavor — but herbs are plants, and spices are concentrated plants.
Nuts and seeds
Many nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E and an array of polyphenols.
Whole grains and pulses
Many whole grains and pulses — beans and lentils — contain a variety of antioxidant vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Red and black beans, soy beans and darker-hued grains like red quinoa, black barley and black or purple rice are standout choices.
While water is the best bet for hydration, other beverages can contribute important antioxidants. Coffee and espresso contain chlorogenic acid, and the “true teas” — green, black and oolong — contain a number of polyphenols, including catechins, tannins and flavonoids. Red wine famously contains the polyphenol known as resveratrol, and 100% pomegranate juice contains anthocyanins and many other phytonutrients.
Should you get antioxidants from supplements? The short answer is no, because this is a case where there can be too much of a good thing. In excess, the balance can tip, and antioxidants can become pro-oxidant, doing the very thing you’re trying to prevent. It’s almost impossible to get too many antioxidants from food, and there’s no evidence that taking antioxidant supplements works as well as getting antioxidants naturally in your diet. So drink some tea, eat a salad, enjoy a crisp fall apple and maybe add in a piece of dark chocolate — it has antioxidants, too.