If you spend a few minutes at your local health foods store you are guaranteed to encounter the word “antioxidant”. Whether plastered on food labels, or brought up in conversation, information about antioxidants are everywhere to be found. But what are antioxidants, and why all the buzz?
Lots of media hype have caused these little molecules to garner a reputation as a cancer-fighting, life-changing panacea. But as health-conscious eaters, we should be skeptical about what we hear about our foods. Lots of natural health products and foods catch on as buzzwords while not holding up to the evidence that support their claims.
In recent years, there has been a lot of research and controversy about antioxidants. Unfortunately, this can be a lot of work to dig through. Luckily enough, we have you covered. Read on to discover what is just hype, and what is truly special about antioxidants.
Defined simply, antioxidants are natural compounds that prevent cell damage caused by oxidants. Nice and simple—they are called antioxidants because they fight oxidants. While this is a basic antioxidant definition, many questions still remain. Perhaps at the top of the list is the question: what are oxidants? For this, we will have to go into a bit more detail.
Oxidants and Free Radicals
An oxidant, otherwise known as an “oxidizing agent”, come in several forms: a molecule, a compound, or an element. When they activate, they accept electrons that cause a chemical process known as “oxidation”. According to a landmark 2010 study, many of these oxidizing effects in the body can cause real and potentially toxic harm.
Oxidation can produce free radicals. While their name sounds like an 80s punk band, these little guys are not to be taken lightly. Free radicals lead to chemical chain reactions that damage the cells in the body, including those in your vital organs. They can also damage your DNA. Thankfully, antioxidants have the power to come to the rescue for us, as they stop these chain reactions dead in their tracks.
It makes perfect sense, then, that we should load up on antioxidants in our diets. The reasoning is simple, the more antioxidants your body has the less likely chance your cells, organs, and DNA will be adversely affected.
It is also worth noting that you can naturally reduce your free radical count. This way, you don’t have to rely as much on antioxidants through supplementation or dietary intake. The main non-natural sources of free radicals are pollution and contaminants in our air, water, and food. As such, we recommend opting for spray-free foods and filtered water to keep risks at bay.
Antioxidants: How Much Is Too Much?
To many, it may seem like cramming in as many antioxidants as possible into your diet is the correct approach. However, this is not exactly true and can also potentially cause harm. According to Dr. Diane McKay, M.D., overloading yourself with antioxidants can suppress your natural antioxidant defense system and prevent it from activating when it is needed most.
Overloading your body with antioxidants primarily occurs when you take a supplement that throws your body’s natural balance off kilter. This is why we recommend either sticking to natural, whole foods sources of antioxidants or simply finding a supplement that promotes a healthy balance of antioxidant content. If you do choose to buy a supplement, we advise looking for one labelled “pharmaceutical grade” since many brands are not subject to FDA approval.
Don’t get us wrong. Antioxidant supplements can be fantastic. They can have tremendous benefits to your health, wellbeing, and longevity. However, we always advise our readers to err on the side of safety and make sure they get the correct balance of nutrients they need. So dig into the supps’, but only if you are not already getting an adequate supply through your diet.
The Benefits of Antioxidants
We already know, in basic terms, what antioxidants do: they fight pesky free radicals. But the question still remains as to how they can benefit our day to day lives.
Destroying free radicals has a plethora of benefits. First among them is the reduced risk of blood vessel diseases such as atherosclerosis, as well as certain cancers. There are also some experts who hypothesize that reducing the prevalence of free radicals in the body can slow down the aging process. However, these assertions are debated in the scientific community.
Additionally, antioxidant foods are anti-inflammatory in varying degrees. This means that mosts that contain antioxidants can reduce inflammation in the gut and body, which is known to be at the root of many common diseases. This is another reason why anti-inflammatory foods, such as antioxidant foods, we always recommend as a staple of your diet.
It’s also generally a good idea to get your antioxidants in as those foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants tend to also be loaded with other healthy properties. Most common are vitamins C and E, as well as beta-carotene, lycopene and carotenoids. Consuming foods that are high in these substances can lower risk of cancers, extend your lifespan, improve cognitive function, and give you glowing and more youthful skin.
The Ultimate Antioxidant Foods
Now that we know all the basics about antioxidants and free radicals, it’s time to get to the good stuff. Let’s go through some of our favorite free radical busting foods so you can enhance your diet and health with the power of antioxidants. Plus, we will also let you in on some secret strategies for including antioxidant foods in just about any meal.
With each food below we’ve also provided an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score. ORAC scores tell us a lot of important information about each food. Most importantly, however, is that the higher the ORAC score, the more antioxidants are generally found in the food.
Who doesn’t love a handful of fresh, wild blueberries? There are few things as refreshing as them. And to boot, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant concentrations in the world. In fact, by weight, blueberries rank in the top 5 foods for antioxidant properties worldwide. And if that’s not enough, blueberries are also packed with vitamin K and C, dietary fiber, and manganese.
ORAC Score: 9,621
Dark chocolate high on raw cocoa content (>75%) are the bar-none king of antioxidant foods. With a whopping ORAC score, dark chocolates rank at the top of the list for antioxidation. While these yummy slabs of chocolate fight dangerous free radicals, they also have been proven to improve heart health and lessen the risk of blood clotting. So next time you reach for a candy bar, go for the dark stuff.
ORAC Score: 20,816
This one comes as a bit of a surprise to most. While not often touted as the free radical killer that it is, pecans are a tasty snack that pack a very high ORAC score. Aside from this, pecan nuts contain lots of healthy fats that can reduce “bad cholesterol” (i.e. LDL) and improve in digestive health by supporting your colon and encouraging bowel movements.
ORAC Score: 17,940
Elderwhat? These little-known berries are one of nature’s best kept secrets. And as far as berries go, they are king when it comes to crushing free radicals. While long used as a natural remedy by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, elderberries boast the highest ORAC score among all other berries. They have also been shown to fight chronic fatigue, sinus issues, aches and pains, and even alleviate flu and cold symptoms.
ORAC Score: 14,697
It’s true, artichoke hearts has gained a solid reputation as a natural remedy to numerous ailments. However, the artichoke leaves are where many of the antioxidant benefits are to be found in the plant. There are three different kinds of antioxidants concentrated in artichoke leaves that have been shown to slow the growth of tumors. When cooking, we recommend boiling them with garlic as this preserves all those wonderful health properties.
ORAC Score: 9,416
This popular cooking herb is the last to make our list. Despite not boasting the highest ORAC score, cilantro deserves to be added to your diet because it’s simply the best seasoning for antioxidation. Besides, cilantro is also rich in folate, potassium, and vitamins K and A. This makes cilantro the obvious topping for just about any health-food lover.
Wondering how you can get the most out of cilantro? We recommend adding it to salsas, curries, pasta dishes and sauces, as well as guacamole and chip dips. It’s hard to go wrong with the unbeatable taste of cilantro combined with its unique antioxidant benefits.
ORAC Score: 5,141