Health & Body-Boosting

Antioxidants: Why Do We Need Them in Our Diet?

Tue Jan 26

Our bodies are fighting battles every day that we don’t even know about. Think air pollution and UV rays among others. It’s a hard job, so how can we help? Cue antioxidants.

Antioxidants help to slow down damage to cells caused by free radicals — they can also neutralize them. 

What are free radicals you may ask? They are the waste produced by your cells as the body processes food and reacts to the environment.

If we cannot process and remove free radicals efficiently, oxidative stress can occur, which is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants.

Oxidative stress has been linked to premature aging, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease among other things. It’s something we want to do anything to avoid, to say the least!

However, our bodies have adapted to coexist with free radicals — in fact, they are a natural part of the body’s function. 

Take exercising for example. When we exercise, we produce free radicals. But don’t freak out! The benefits outweigh the costs. And we can all agree that getting your heart pumping has great benefits for our overall mental and physical health.

The body can also use the free radicals for its own good tasks. The immune system takes advantage of the cell-damaging qualities and uses them to kill bacteria and viruses.

So, if free radicals do so many good things, why do we want to keep them at low levels?

As said above, the problem is when we have too much of this good thing, it overwhelms the body.

While it’s impossible to completely avoid free radical exposure, we look to antioxidants to lower the proportion of them in our bodies.

But how can we get these free-radical fighting warriors? Our bodies can make some on their own, but the majority of antioxidants we have to get from food!

The antioxidants your body wants:

Each nutrient and vitamin that acts as an antioxidant has its own unique superpowers.

In fact, it’s often the combination of multiple antioxidant sources that help make them so powerful. All hail teamwork.

Here is a list of the most recognized antioxidants:

  • Beta-carotene
  • Vitamins A, C, and E
  • Flavonoids
  • Flavones
  • Lutein
  • Lycopene
  • Manganese
  • Polyphenols
  • Selenium

Okay so now we know some of their names, where do they come from?? In fact, plant-based produce is the best source of antioxidants.

When it comes to produce, the more colorful your diet, the more nutrients and antioxidants you’re getting.

Here are some examples of the foods that contain specific antioxidants:

  • Vitamin A: dairy products, eggs
  • Ascorbic acid or vitamin C: most fruits and veggies: dark leafy greens, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, cauliflower, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit and mangosteen (I didn’t know what that fruit was either)
  • Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, green leafy veggies
  • Beta-carotene: brightly-colored fruits and veggies like cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges, bell peppers, beets
  • Lycopene: pink and red fruits and veggies 
  • Lutein: leafy greens, corn, oranges
  • Polyphenols: grapes, green tea, blueberries, strawberries, apples, onions, red wine
  • Selenium: brown rice, fish, legumes, cheese, eggs

Other foods that are good sources of antioxidants:

  • Eggplant
  • Blueberries
  • Red grapes
  • Dark chocolate
  • Pomegranate
  • Goji berries

Knowing the best sources of antioxidants is the first step. But it’s how you cook the foods that can increase or decrease the antioxidant content significantly. 

For example, when tomatoes are cooked, their lycopene content is much more potent than when eaten raw. (Did someone say spaghetti sauce?)

However, cauliflower and peas can lose their potency of antioxidants when boiled. Try baking them or eating the veggies with hummus to get all the goodness from them.

It can get a little tricky, but the key is to eat a mix of cooked and raw plant foods.

The takeaway?

Eat the rainbow. Seriously. Include fruits and veggies, in all different colors into meals and snacks.

Make it spicy. Use herbs and spices to flavor food instead of salt. Turmeric, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon, in particular, are loaded with antioxidants.

Go green in the afternoon. Try a matcha latte instead of the americano as your afternoon pick-me-up. Matcha is full of antioxidants.

Add nuts! Sprinkle walnuts or cashews to overnight oats or your yogurt parfait.

Boost your benefits with beets. Roasted is the way to go to cook these beautifully-colored superfoods. Whether oked or raw, they are a great addition to salads and smoothies!

Depending on overall health, this way of defending yourself against free radicals isn’t 100% foolproof. As with everything that falls into the nature vs. nurture debate, genetics and pre-existing conditions may play as much of a role as the aspects you can control. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that no one antioxidant targets free radicals. Rather than focusing on just one type of food, it’s much more important to incorporate numerous antioxidants by making healthy eating choices and managing stress.

All in all, antioxidants are super important for a healthy body and mind. 

Including lots of colorful foods (raw and cooked) in your diet is the best way to get enough of them and say no to unneeded oxidative stress!