Antioxidant Foods: Health Benefit or Hype?

Antioxidant Foods: Health Benefit or Hype?

You’ve probably heard or read about antioxidants, but you may be wondering if they are important — and if they positively impact our health. In a nutshell, yes to both! Antioxidants protect our cells from damage. The ones our bodies produce naturally are known as endogenous antioxidants. We can also get them from eating certain foods, called exogenous antioxidants. In this post, we’re going to explain antioxidants, how they benefit our health and which foods are the best sources of antioxidants.

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are enzymes and other substances which can prevent and counteract the damaging effects of oxidation. Oxidation is a normal, vital process that happens in our bodies. Our body’s cells generate energy by removing electrons from fatty acids, amino acids and sugars and then adding them to oxygen molecules. The result is cell waste products — unstable, highly reactive particles called free radicals.

How Do Antioxidants Benefit Our Health?

Antioxidants protect cells from free radicals by “donating” electrons to free radicals without becoming unstable themselves. Not all free radicals are harmful — our immune system manufactures free radicals and uses them to fight infectious agents.

However, when free radical activity exceeds antioxidant activity, known as oxidative stress, it can cause a multitude of health problems. Free radicals can damage cell DNA, fatty tissue and proteins, leading to chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, inflammation, vision loss, arthritis and aging-related issues. Some studies indicate that oxidative stress may also contribute to fibromyalgia.

Prolonged exposure from our diet, lifestyle and environment increases our risk of developing health problems. It’s impossible to avoid many environmental sources of free radicals — but the good news is that you can make some easy dietary and lifestyle changes to help your body boost its antioxidant levels and reduce free radical formation.

Best Antioxidant Foods

Not surprisingly, the best antioxidant sources are fruits and vegetables. Whole grains, coffee, chocolate, red wine and tea also contains antioxidants. These plant-based foods contain vital nutrients, minerals and vitamins that act as antioxidants. You may already be familiar with some: vitamin C and E, beta carotene, lycopene, selenium, manganese and lutein. Meat, dairy and fish contain antioxidants too, but can’t compare to fruits and vegetables. Try to include five servings of high antioxidant foods each day in your diet — here are the best antioxidant foods:

Berries, Red and Purple Grapes

Blueberries are truly a “superfood,” loaded with anthocyanins, a substance known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Strawberries are also loaded with anthocyanins, ellagic acid, minerals and vitamins. Raspberries contain ellagic acid, vitamin C and manganese, and have even been found to kill colon, breast and stomach cancer cells, according to one study. Purple and red grapes also contain anthocyanins, plus vitamin C and selenium. If you can, buy organic berries and grapes, which have lower exposures to chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Red Cabbage

You’ll find anthocyanins in red cabbage too, along with beta carotene, zeaxanthin, lutein and vitamins A, C and K. You can add raw red cabbage to salads and coleslaw, sauté it olive oil or try it fermented in a Korean dish called kimchi.

Dark Leafy Greens: Spinach, Kale & Collard Greens

Although the 1930s cartoon character Popeye ate spinach for strength, spinach is better eaten for its antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Both play a role in protecting against age-related macular degeneration, a vision disorder. Kale ranks up there as another “superfood” thanks to high amounts of vitamins A, C and K, plus anthocyanins and other nutrients. Collard greens contain the antioxidants kaempferol and alpha-lipoic acid and loads of vitamin K. Studies suggest that alpha-lipoic acid can prevent oxidative stress in diabetics and lower glucose levels. Dark, leafy greens are also high in fiber and low in calories and should be an essential part of your diet.

Orange Vegetables

Sweet potatoes are becoming popular on restaurant menus and home chef’s tables and for good reason — they contain higher levels of vitamins C and A than white potatoes, as well as other nutrients. Carrots are loaded with beta carotene and make great raw snacks you can carry anywhere. Acorn and butternut squash are also good sources of similar antioxidants.


If you’re noticing a trend that all the fruits and vegetables listed here are brightly colored, you’re right. Intensely colored fruits and vegetables get their color from pigments which also happen to have antioxidant benefits. Beets are no different and get their intense red color from a class of red pigments called betalains, elements with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Dark Chocolate

Yes, you can eat dark chocolate as part of a healthy, antioxidant diet! The key here is serving size and chocolate source — this doesn’t mean you can munch on chocolate bars all day, thinking you’re doing your health a favor. Cacao, dark chocolate’s primary ingredient, contains more antioxidants, including flavonoids such as procyanidins, catechin and epicatechin, than most other foods. The higher the percentage of cacao, the better — which means popular candies such as M&Ms, Hershey’s Kisses and Snickers bars are not part of a healthy diet. Chocolate milk doesn’t count either as some studies indicate milk can interfere with the absorption of dark chocolate’s nutrients.

Researchers recommend eating one to two ounces of dark chocolate per day — more than that means you’re consuming a lot of excess sugar and calories. Aim for high-quality, solid dark chocolate bars with unprocessed cacao percentages of at least 70 percent. Avoid any that contain trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), artificial flavors, sweeteners or dyes. Organic varieties are popping up everywhere, which won’t contain artificial ingredients.

What About Antioxidant Supplements?

You might be wondering if you can just add an antioxidant supplement to your diet instead of adding these foods. Despite the hype and marketing of antioxidant supplements, most researchers will advise against supplements. Our body often can’t absorb them well — and worse, supplements can interfere with the absorption of other nutrients and medications. Your best bet is to get antioxidants from primary sources – fresh, unprocessed plant-based foods.

The fruits and vegetables listed here aren’t the only ones that can increase your antioxidant intake! Other high antioxidant foods include tea (especially green tea), coffee, whole grains, beans and nuts. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, getting regular exercise and eliminating processed, trans fats foods from your diet can make as big — if not a bigger, difference in your overall health. If inflammation is a health concern, many foods combat inflammation as well. Check out our post about the best foods to combat chronic inflammation here.


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