We hear a lot about antioxidants. As far as popular health-related topics go, “antioxidant foods” is up there with “gluten,” “organic,” and “non-GMO.” If you’ve ever wondered what antioxidants actually are, though, you’re not alone. Here is the basic rundown:
Antioxidants are chemical compounds often found naturally in food, which, once consumed, negate the effects of free radicals in the human body. This is an important process because wherever an excess of free radicals accumulates, it can damage your DNA — which in turn can contribute to cancer growth.
The result of free radical accumulation is called “oxidative stress,” and is associated with a number of other diseases as well, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Hence, consuming healthy levels of antioxidant foods is one way of protecting against cancer and other diseases.
“Can’t I just avoid free radicals?” you might ask. Unfortunately, you really can’t. Free radicals are everywhere, including in many foods, medicines, and the environment itself. They’re in the air we breathe and the water we drink, not to mention being a natural byproduct of biological processes in the body.
So what do you do? Since there are a lot of risk factors for disease we can’t control (such as aging and genetics), it seems logical to take advantage of those we can. One easy way is to maintain a healthy diet full of antioxidants.
You want to avoid heavily processed foods advertised as containing high levels of antioxidants, since this usually means synthetic antioxidants have been added to the food. Studies indicate that these man-made compounds are not only less protective, but may in fact be damaging to human health.
Bottom line: you want the majority of your antioxidants to come from whole, natural foods, such as these:
Native to Mexico and some southern U.S. states, the famous nut behind “pecan pie” is quite healthy (even if the pie is not). Pecans contain fiber, protein, flavonoids, vitamins, and unsaturated fats. They wouldn’t top this list if they weren’t also a fantastic source of antioxidant compounds.
Control yourself, though, because pecans are also high in calories — a handful goes a long way.
Blueberries may contain the highest amount of antioxidants among all commonly consumed fruits and vegetables, making them the poster-child for antioxidative benefits.
While still inconclusive, research indicates that the particular antioxidants in blueberries work to delay effects of aging on the brain (in other words, preventing or delaying cognitive decline).
Add in the fact that they’re nutritious in many other ways, not to mention delicious, and you’ve got an antioxidant that’s equally at home on the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table.
Strawberries are a great source of vitamin C, manganese, folate (vitamin B9), and potassium. They’re also naturally rich in antioxidants that help with both heart health and blood sugar control.
Despite their sweetness, strawberries are full of water, making them a low-carb choice. Plus eating them can reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation.
Humans have revered artichokes for their health benefits and medicinal properties for centuries. Contemporary research backs up our ancestors’ appreciation of this edible blossom of a thistle plant.
Low in fat, packed with fiber, full of vitamins, minerals, and of course, antioxidants, an artichoke-a-day could indeed keep the doctor away.
If you think there’s a “berry” noticeable theme to this list, you’re right. In addition to blueberries and strawberries, the raspberry is well-known for its antioxidative properties. Like blueberries, raspberries are also jammed full of compounds called anthocyanins, which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Raspberries are so powerful that one study of test-tube cancers showed that the antioxidants found in them managed to kill 90 percent of colon, breast, and stomach cancers. Several other studies have linked the antioxidants and other components in raspberries to lower risks of cancer and heart disease.
Anything from the cruciferous vegetable family is a healthy choice, and kale is no exception. It’s one of the most nutritious green vegetables there is, providing vitamins A, C, and K, as well as loads of calcium and numerous antioxidant compounds.
Red varieties of kale, such as redbor and Russian kale, pack an extra punch thanks to the same anthocyanins found in blueberries and raspberries. These compounds give the varieties (and berries) their color, and often indicate that they have twice the amount of antioxidants as green kale.
Spinach leaves are one of the most nutritionally dense vegetables on the planet. Spinach may not give you Popeye-sized muscles, but it certainly provides you with a boatload of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help with immune support, serve as brain boosters, and provide defense against cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Most of us don’t consume raw lemons on a regular basis, but if you were to glance at the famous yellow citrus’s nutritional profile, you might start to think we should.
Lemons are high in vitamin C, folate (B9), potassium, flavonoids and antioxidants. This makes them not only great for relieving oxidative stress, but also for supporting heart, immune, and reproductive health.
Reading through this list, you may have gathered that fruits and vegetables tend to be excellent sources of dietary antioxidants. Luckily for us on-the-go eaters, bananas are no exception. Catechins and dopamine are two components in bananas that provide a great deal of antioxidative benefits, including lowered risks of heart disease and lowered cognitive degeneration.
Cinnamon is a great source of nutrition for the simple reason that it’s likely already sitting on a shelf in your pantry. In addition to its large store of antioxidants, cinnamon is known to lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, making it an all around super-spice.
Refusing to let cinnamon dominate the anti-oxidative spice category, oregano (and oregano oil) has been found to contain a high number of antioxidant compounds. It’s also got plenty of vitamin K, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
The great thing about oregano (aside from its health benefits) is that it’s readily available and makes a delicious addition to dishes of all kinds, from pizzas and salads to chili, soup, or stew.
12. Russet Potatoes
“A potato?” you ask. Yes, Russet potatoes rank among the highest antioxidant providers in the vegetable category.. They’re starchy, which may downgrade them as a choice for anyone worried about blood sugar levels.
All in all, these root veggies are a great source of not only antioxidants, but also iron, potassium, and vitamins C and B6.
13. Dark Chocolate
This is a classic example of saving the best for last. Depending on what kind of chocolate you’re talking about (and who’s measuring), dark chocolate contains more antioxidants than both blueberries and raspberries. As a rule of thumb, the higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants are in the chocolate.
Fiber, iron, potassium, manganese, and copper are just a few more of the many healthy nutrients that dark chocolate provides.
Despite the deliciousness of the foods on this list, the unfortunate truth is that no amount of antioxidants in your diet can alter your genetic predisposition for disease, stop you from aging, or undo the effects of a poor overall diet and lifestyle.
What will do the trick is a balanced diet full of whole foods (raw or cooked) like vegetables, fruits, proteins, and healthy fats, along with a good exercise regimen and healthy amount of sleep.
Add in extra antioxidants on top of that, and you’re well on your way to being a specimen of perfect health.
Featured photo credit: Cecilia Par via unsplash.com