There are hundreds of foods full of many different kinds of antioxidants. These gifts from Mother Nature protect the DNA in our healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals.
What are Free Radicals?
Free radicals attack and damage healthy cells. They're produced by normal body functions, such as breathing and physical activity, and lifestyle choices like smoking and pollution. Antioxidants help remove damaging free radicals, so regularly eating foods high in antioxidants boosts your body’s defense system, making you less susceptible to cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
Research consistently associates low antioxidant intake or low blood levels of antioxidants with increased cancer risk (1). It has also been estimated that increasing antioxidant vitamins in your diet may reduce the risk of heart disease by 20-30% (2).
1. Carotenoids: Orange You Glad You Know
Foods high in carotenoids include red, orange, deep-yellow and some dark-green leafy vegetables. Imagine foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, apricots, spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli. There are more than 600 types of carotenoids with beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein the most well-known. Foods high in carotenoids may effectively fight against prostate cancer (beta-carotene); cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum (lycopene); and may help decrease your risk of macular degeneration (lutein).
2. Flavonoids: Brightly Colored Foods
There are more than 6,000 different flavonoids. They have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, anti-viral, anti-aging, and anti-carcinogenic activity (3-6). The most brightly colored foods are likely to contain flavonoids. Some examples include: red cabbage, purple or concord grapes, blueberries, pomegranates, cranberries, raspberries, red currants and kumquats.
Anthocyanins are one type of flavonoids found naturally in foods. They are the pigments that give red, purple and blue plants their bright color. The superfood acai powder is one of my favorite berries to add to smoothies and smoothie bowls.
These foods are protective against lung cancer, the number-one cancer killer of women. Tea, particularly green tea and matcha tea, also contains two of the most potent antioxidants of all the flavonoids. Here's the scoop on green tea and all its glory.
3. Vitamin E for Excellence
Vitamin E is especially good at protecting your cell membranes against free radicals, which can lead to cancer, heart disease and cataracts as we age. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, and your cell membranes are made up of mostly fat. Vitamin E works with other antioxidants like vitamin C to offer protection from some chronic diseases. Vitamin E is found in sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, sweet potato, wheat germ, and wheat germ oil.
4. Vitamin C For Champion
Vitamin C is your body’s top antioxidant and is the granddaddy of immune supporting nutrients. Not only does it mop up those nasty free radicals, it helps many of your body’s other antioxidants do their work better. To take advantage of these benefits, eat foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits and tangerines), strawberries, sweet peppers (especially yellow), tomatoes, broccoli and potatoes. If you want to take a supplement for a huge vitamin C boost, Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C is our top seller.
5. Selenium: An Essential Mineral
Your body’s most abundant natural antioxidant is an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, and without selenium, you can’t make glutathione. Glutathione has been called the “Master Antioxidant”, the “Mother of all Antioxidants,” and the “Superhero of Antioxidants.” Glutathione fights off cellular invaders, repairs cellular damage, boosts the power and life of other antioxidants, and plays a very important role in cellular detoxification.
Selenium may help protect against heart disease. It may also protect against colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer. Selenium is found in seafood, red meat, chicken, oatmeal, and brown rice.
These are a group of 1,000-plus natural molecules typically found in cruciferous vegetables – the green ones. Foods rich in isothiocyanates include: chicory, Swiss chard, escarole, endive and parsley. Eating these foods can help protect against ovarian cancer. Isothyocyanates and sulphoraphane (cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) have been shown to inhibit various steps in tumor development in animal and in vitro studies (7).
Bottom Line: Next time you peruse the produce section of your grocery store, pick out lots of colored fruits and vegetables: reds, orange, yellows, greens, blues and purples. Over the course of a week, eat as many colors as you can.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
1. Block, G. et al. Fruit, Vegetables, and Cancer Prevention: A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence, Nutr Cancer1992;18(1):1-29.
2. Hennekens, C.H. and Gaziano, J.M., Antioxidants and Heart Disease: Epidemiology and Clinical Evidence. Clin Cardiol 1993;16(suppl I):I-10, I-15).
3. Cody, V., Middleton, E. and Harborne, J.B., Plant Flavonoids in Biology and Medicine-Biochemical, Pharmacological, and Structure-activity Relationships, Alan R. Liss, New York, NY, 1986.
4. Kuhnau, J., “The flavonoids: a class of semi-essential food components: their role in human nutrition,” Wld Rev. Nutr. Diet, 1976, 24, pp. 117-91.
5. Havsteen, B. flavonoids, a Class of Natural Products of High Pharmacological Potency. Biochem Pharm1983;32(7):1141-1148.
6. Middleton, E., “The flavonoids,” Trends in Pharmaceut. Sci., 1984, 5, pp. 335-8.
7. Milner, J.A., Reducing the Risk of Cancer. ch 3, p 39-70. in Functional Foods ed. Goldberg, I. Chapman and Hall: New York 1994.
8. Pressman, A. and Buff S. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vitamins and Minerals. Alpha Books. 1997.