Grocery & Nutrition • JAN 23, 2020
Our bodies go through a lot just on a daily basis. Stress, pollution, and overindulgence of unhealthy foods (like fried foods and alcohol) can all cause cell damage. Luckily, antioxidants can help combat and prevent cell damage. We’re breaking down a little of the science behind free radicals, antioxidants, and how to navigate them in your day-to-day life.
Free radicals cause damage to cells. They are formed as a byproduct when your body burns oxygen to produce energy, a process called oxidation. They can also come from pollution, cigarette smoke, and UV light. These free radicals are missing an electron, which makes them unstable. In order to become stable, they steal an electron from other body cells, which causes damage to those body cells. It is ok to have some level of free radicals in your body, but if the levels are high over a period of time, cell damage can occur and contribute to or manifest as health problems like heart disease, age-related macular degeneration, and cancer.
Antioxidants help combat free radicals, preventing cell damage. When free radicals are looking to steal an electron from other cells, antioxidants donate one of their electrons to make them stable again, thus preventing the free radicals from causing damage to the other cells. Certain vitamins and phytonutrients act as antioxidants. Let’s take a look at common places to get your fill and armor up!
You reap the benefits of antioxidants from eating colorful plant foods.
The red color in fruits and vegetables often comes from the carotenoid lycopene. Carotenoids
are plant pigments that give certain fruits and vegetables a red, orange, or yellow color.
Benefits: Lycopene may benefit prostate and heart health.
Foods: Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, and guava.
Tip: Cooking makes lycopene more bioavailable, meaning it is easier for your body to absorb it. For example, it is easier for your body to absorb lycopene from cooked tomato sauce than a raw tomato.
The bright color of these fruits and veggies comes from carotenoids like beta-carotene.
Benefits: These carotenoids help support eye health and protect cells by neutralizing free radicals. Additionally, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin are provitamin A carotenoids, meaning they can be converted to vitamin A by the body. Vitamin A is needed for vision and immune function.
Foods: Cantaloupe, apricot, carrot, sweet potato, butternut squash, acorn squash, bell pepper, tangerine, and pumpkin. Beta-cryptoxanthin can also be found in a few red foods, like papayas and sweet red peppers.
Fun fact: Spinach is also a good source of beta-carotene, even though it is not orange in color. The chlorophyll in the leaves covers up the orange pigment.
Tip: Boost carotenoid absorption by combining these foods with fat. For example, cook carotenoid-containing vegetables with oil.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids in green and yellow vegetables whereas isothiocyanates,
another phytonutrient, are found in cruciferous vegetables.
Benefits: Eye health; may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Isothiocyanates may help detoxify carcinogens as well as neutralize free radicals.
Foods: Green, leafy vegetables like collard greens, kale, spinach, parsley, peas, and lettuce. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage. Other vegetables like pumpkin and corn also contain these phytonutrients.
Tip: Lutein and zeaxanthin are better absorbed with fats, so including some olive oil, avocado, or nuts, on your leafy green salad will boost absorption.
These bright colored fruits and vegetables come from anthocyanins.
Benefits: Brain health support.
Foods: Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, plums, eggplant, and purple potatoes.
Additional food sources of antioxidants.
Bell pepper, orange, grapefruit, strawberries, papaya, broccoli, cantaloupe, mango
Benefits: Immune system helper; helps your body fight infection.
Almonds, sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, wheat germ oil, spinach
Benefits: Helps prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which can help lower the risk of heart disease.
Brazil nuts, fish, chicken, eggs
Benefits: May help protect against heart disease and cancer.
Regarding supplements, food sources of antioxidants are your best bet. Some studies have shown that high levels of antioxidant supplements such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium do more harm than good.