Eating a balanced meal is hard can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Maybe you’re pretty satisfied with your diet and you’re just looking to incorporate some extra punches of nutrition to your day-to-day snacks. Maybe you’re unhappy with your current diet, and you’re looking to make smaller, more measured changes that will be easier to stick to overtime. Either way you’re coming at it, it's always a great idea to incorporate more antioxidants in your diet.
“An antioxidant is a naturally occurring compound found in vitamins and minerals that combat free radicals in the body,” says Meryl Pritchard, a nutritionist and wellness chef. “Free radicals are a natural byproduct when we convert food into energy, and also come from outside sources like environmental toxins found in our air, water, food, and cleaning/beauty supplies. Free radicals can be harmful because they may have the ability to damage our DNA structure, and in large amounts can cause oxidative stress which can lead to disease.
"Antioxidant basically means anti-oxidation. You can think of oxidation as rusting, or aging in the body, caused by free radicals," she continues. "Antioxidants combat these free radicals—safely removing them from our body, help the processing of repairing our DNA, and keep cells healthy. It’s easiest for us to consume antioxidants in their natural form through our food.”
Luckily, you don't have to take sketchy supplements to increase your antioxidant intake. “Antioxidants are naturally found in plants,” says Isabel K. Smith, a registered dietitian. “Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other plant compounds all contain antioxidants, and the color of the plant dictates the type of antioxidant present.”
Convinced you should start adding more antioxidants to your diet? Same. So ahead, Pritchard, Smith, and registered dietitian Lisa Moskovitz share the most powerful antioxidants and their sources.
Meet the Expert
- Lisa Moskovitz, RD is a registered dietitian and the CEO of NY Nutrition Group. She is also a medical expert board member for Eat This Not That.
- Meryl Pritchard is a certified nutritionist and wellness chef based in Los Angeles, CA, Pritchard is also the founder of KORE Kitchen.
- Isabel K Smith, MS, RD, CDN is the CEO and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. Isabel holds a registered dietitian license and a Masters of Science in Nutrition Communications from Tufts University.
“This is an essential vitamin that directly promotes eye health,” says Moskowitz. Carrots are rich in the antioxidant beta carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A. “An easy way to remember this is if you cut a carrot in half across the width, it almost appears like an eye," notes Moskowitz.
Moskowitz praises the benefits of vitamin E at length. “This fat-soluble antioxidant stops the production of cell-damaging oxidative stress in the body that can lead to chronic diseases, such as heart disease. Vitamin E can also support your immune system," she says, noting that vegetable oils—including sunflower and safflower oils, nuts, and seeds—are the best sources of this important vitamin. Smith also recommends including almonds and avocados to get more vitamin E.
“Not only does vitamin C help to balance our immune system, but it can also neutralize free radical molecules, protecting the body against oxidative damage,” says Moskowitz. It’s found in most fruits and vegetables, but if broccoli or oranges aren’t your jam, don’t worry—cacao is also a very potent source of vitamin C. (According to Pritchard, cacao has even more vitamin C than most berries.)
“This powerful polyphenol has a ton of health benefits,” says Moskowitz. “These include protecting against heart disease, lowering cholesterol, improving skin firmness, and even helping with blood sugars or insulin levels. Resveratrol is naturally found in smaller amounts within the skins of red grapes (and therefore red wine), blueberries, and peanuts.
Quercetin is a source of one of the most abundant dietary flavonoids. “Quercetin has been linked to improving exercise performance, reducing inflammation, and regulating blood pressure,” says Moskowitz. She says that it can also be used for hay fever, asthma, gout, and chronic fatigue syndrome under the recommendation and supervision of a physician,
This trace mineral plays an important role in immune system function, DNA synthesis, metabolism, and can also support thyroid health,” says Moskowitz. “Brazil nuts are by far the best source of this essential antioxidant. One brazil nut can provide you with all the selenium you need for the day. Otherwise, most animal proteins like chicken, beef, and fish also provide a great source of selenium.”
“Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that our body produces naturally, and it's vital for cell growth and repair," says Moskowitz. "Levels naturally decrease as we age, and lower CoQ10 circulation can increase susceptibility to oxidative stress, especially through sun damage. The best sources of CoQ10 are organ meats, some muscle meats such as pork or chicken, fatty fish including trout and herring, spinach, strawberries, and lentils.”
Catechins are types of flavanols that have strong antioxidant properties. One of the best-studied catechins is EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which is found naturally in teas, such as green, black, and white. Both Smith and Moskowitz say that EGCG has a profound impact on inflammation and oxidative stress.
As members of the flavonoid group, anthocyanins are what give certain foods their natural blue, red, or purple color. For that reason, Moskowitz says that the best sources of anthocyanins include blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, red cabbage, and blackcurrants. Pritchard also recommends acai as another source of anthocyanins. Not only do they have antioxidant properties that can improve vascular health and lower blood pressure, but they are also anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.
This antioxidant is best found in tomatoes and other red or pink fruits. According to Smith, it is anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy, and is great for skin health. She says that the best way to get lycopene is to eat watermelon or cooked tomatoes.
Moskowitz says that lutein can directly enhance eye and skin health. This antioxidant can protect against sun damage to your skin and improve vision. The best sources of lutein include spinach, kiwis, grapes, zucchini, and various types of squash.
Pritchard recommends adding turmeric into your diet, a powerful source of curcumin. Curcumin is a very potent anti-inflammatory, which can help manage chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease.
According to Smith, sulforaphane is anti-inflammatory and helps to protect DNA. She recommends sourcing it from cruciferous vegetables like kale, cabbage, and cauliflower.
The name might sound unfamiliar, but you’re probably already getting it everyday, in your morning cup of coffee. Chlorogenic acid is found alongside caffeine in coffee, and Smith encourages consuming chlorogenic acid as it may promote heart health. While you may be getting some chlogenic acid through that morning cup of joe, Smith says that it’s best found in artichoke hearts, and that streaming the hearts allows for the most antioxidants to appear.”
Smith says that kaempferol may be anti-inflammatory and is healthful for DNA. It’s found in high concentrations in leafy greens and ramps.
Considering how much of our lives are consumed by staring at screens for school, work, and leisure, Smith recommends consuming beta-cryptoxanthin, which may be helpful with eyesight, growth and development, and immune response. It’s found in papayas, peaches, and tangerines!
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