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Published on June 15, 2020

Add Antioxidants for Better Health

bowl of fruit

One of the big buzzwords in nutrition today is “antioxidants.”  Food product labels tout them, and nutritionists tell us to get them.

But what are they, why do we need them, and how can we get them?

Our bodies use oxygen, and when they do, they naturally produce unstable molecules called “free radicals” that cause damage over time.

Free radicals may also come from environmental contaminants like tobacco smoke or pesticides, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Free radicals can damage cells, contributing to cancer, heart disease, and other diseases, according to the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Antioxidants are nutrients or substances found in foods that stabilize free radicals and help prevent the damage they cause. 

Antioxidants are nutrients such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, lutein, lycopene, and flavonoids. 

According to the healthy living website, antioxidant foods protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and the effects of aging, and they enhance immune functions.

The Mayo Clinic recommends getting your antioxidants through food, not through antioxidant supplements, which may be less effective. 

The American Cancer Society, for example, found that eating actual tomatoes, which contain the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene, does more to prevent prostate cancer than taking a lycopene supplement.  

Some of the most delicious foods are the highest in antioxidants. Berries, dark chocolate, even red wine are great sources. 

When it comes to antioxidants, it’s best to include a variety of foods. 

Antioxidant-rich foods also tend to be those that are high-fiber, low-fat, low-cholesterol, and full of nutrients. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the best sources for antioxidants are:

  • Berries – Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries are among the top sources of antioxidants.  Eat them by the handful, mix them into smoothies, or toss them on a salad.
  • Other fruits – Many apple varieties (with peel) are high in antioxidants as are avocados, grapes and raisins, apricots, cherries, green and red pears, fresh or dried plums, pineapple, kiwi, and oranges.  Choose fruit for a sweet snack.  EvergreenHealth nutritionist Tina Begg recommends choosing local, in-season produce for the best flavor and antioxidant content.  She also suggests buying organic produce if possible, and always washing all produce thoroughly before eating.
  • Beans – Kidney, pinto, black beans, soybeans (edamame), and lentils are all rich in antioxidants as well as protein and fiber.  Use them in soups, salads, and main dishes.
  • Vegetables – Those with the highest antioxidant content include colorful vegetables like tomatoes, red peppers, eggplant, and carrots; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, collards, and turnips; and other vegetables, including artichokes, spinach, red leaf lettuce, russet potatoes (with peel), and sweet potatoes. Vegetables are also full of fiber.  Cooking vegetables may even increase their antioxidant effect.  Eat a variety of colors every day.
  • Beverages – Green tea is a good source of antioxidants, but so are black tea and coffee.  Red wine and many fruit juices, such as pomegranate, are also good sources. 
  • Nuts and oils – Walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds have the highest antioxidant content.  Nut oils and olive and vegetable oils also contain antioxidants.  Oils also help you absorb oil-soluble vitamins in other foods.  When buying nut or seed oils, opt for cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, or mechanically pressed, as these no-heat processing methods keep the antioxidants intact.
  • Herbs and seasonings – Garlic and onions, ground cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, oregano, and turmeric are all good sources.  Use them generously in all kinds of dishes.
  • Grains – Choose whole grain foods.  Oat products are usually higher in antioxidants than those from other grain sources. 
  • Red wine – Red wine has many antioxidants.  These flavonoids and a polyphenol called resveratrol are considered heart healthy.  Resveratrol is thought to reduce LDL cholesterol, protect blood vessel linings, and prevent blood clots.  Just be sure to drink it in moderation. 
  • Chocolate – Dark chocolate contains as high, or higher, antioxidant content as most fruits and vegetables. Try eating a one-ounce portion, or use it to make hot chocolate. 

Be sure to eat a variety of foods of all colors to get your antioxidants.  With so many tasty choices, you’ll enjoy eating well for your health. 

Antioxidants and Where to Find Them

Beta-carotene: Orange foods – carrots, squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, apricots, mangoes – and green vegetables like broccoli, kale, collards

Vitamin A: Orange foods – carrots, squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, apricots, mangoes – and green vegetables like broccoli, kale, collards

Vitamin C: Citrus fruits like oranges and limes, broccoli, bell peppers, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, strawberries, fortified foods 

Vitamin E: Nuts and seeds, whole grains, wheat germ, green leafy vegetables, vegetable oil

Selenium: Fish & shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken and garlic

Flavonoids/polyphenols (phytochemicals): Red wine, purple and Concord grapes, pomegranates, cranberries, tea, soy, cocoa

Lycopene: Tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, apricots

Lutein: Dark green vegetables like broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and spinach and kiwi, corn, and egg yolks

Lignan: Flax seed, oatmeal, barley, rye

Sulfides: Onions, garlic, leeks, chives

From, a website run by registered dietitians.


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