Q: I know how important antioxidants are for my health. I would prefer to get as many as possible through food sources rather than supplementation. Can you suggest an easy way to choose the most beneficial foods?
A: Almost every biological function requires oxygen, which supplies electrons to run the machinery of the body. An oxygen molecule that has released its electron becomes a free radical, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). When a free radical forms, it becomes irritable and immediately seeks to replace its missing electron. It will do this by stealing an electron from any local protein, fat, or DNA molecule. The resulting damage from this free-radical attack, or oxidative stress, contributes to a wide range of illnesses, including heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. These are all related to levels of antioxidants.
Health benefits of antioxidants: what’s the buzz?
Some factors that can lead to oxidative stress include:
- Tissue damage caused by injury and inflammation
- Diet – consumption of refined and processed foods, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, and certain dyes and additives
- Environmental toxins and pollution
How do Antioxidants Help?
Antioxidants are molecules that willingly donate their electrons to free radicals. They can protect against the cell damage that free radicals cause, known as oxidative stress. According to one study: they act as a radical scavenger, hydrogen donor, electron donor, peroxide decomposer, singlet oxygen quencher, enzyme inhibitor, synergist, and metal-chelating agents.
The sources of antioxidants can be natural or artificial. Certain plant-based foods are thought to be rich in them. Plant-based antioxidants are a kind of phytonutrient, or plant-based nutrient. The body also produces some, known as endogenous antioxidants. Those that come from outside the body are called exogenous.
Food Sources Vs. Supplements
Obtaining antioxidants through a nutritious diet rather than supplements is widely considered much safer and healthier. All foods contain certain antioxidants in varying amounts, so it’s essential that you include a diverse selection of food in your diet. Much of the research on supplements suggests they do not provide significant health benefits. There are several reasons for this:
- The positive health effects of a diet rich in vegetables and fruits – or other antioxidant food sources – may actually be caused by the combination of other substances present in the same foods.
- The effects of the large doses of antioxidants used in supplements may be harmful to your health.
- The chemical composition and dosage of antioxidants in foods differ from those found in supplements, and this may influence both how they work as well as the outcome.
Obtaining them through Diet
Fruits and vegetables have optimal levels of antioxidants, including vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene. Some other powerful antioxidants in this food source include:
- Flavonoids – found in grapes, cherries, broccoli, and tomatoes – whose antioxidant properties have been associated with reduced risks for heart disease and cancer.
- Polyphenols, found in berries , as well as sulfides, carried in onions, garlic, and chives, also have been shown to be valuable free-radical scavengers.
- Anthocyanins, responsible for the deep red, purple, and blue colors of cherries, grapes, and berries are some of the most effective antioxidants in nature.
Spices and herbs are an important source of various phytochemicals, many of which possess potent antioxidant activity. The top ten as far as antioxidant levels are basil, cinnamon, ginger, curry, chili, cloves, turmeric, oregano, paprika, and mustard seed.
Tea and Coffee – While both coffee and tea are high in antioxidants, there are actually more antioxidants in coffee than tea. Black tea, oolong tea, and green tea are all rich in antioxidants, however, containing 10 times the amount of polyphenols (a type of antioxidant) than fruits and vegetables.
Nuts and Seeds – Walnuts contain substantial amounts of antioxidants, with pecans, chestnuts, peanuts, pistachios, and sunflower seeds also very rich in total antioxidants. Hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, macadamias, pine kernels, cashew nuts, flax seeds, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds are also great sources as well.
Whole Grains – Corn, wheat, rice, and oats all contain high antioxidant activities. Corn has the highest compared to the other three grain types, followed by wheat and then oats, with rice having the lowest amount.
So although antioxidants do come in the form of supplements, research has not shown them to be beneficial in preventing diseases. The takeaway is – good food is better than good supplements.
Dr. Holly Lucille
Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, Bøhn SK, Dragland S, Sampson L, Willey C, Senoo H, Umezono Y, Sanada C, Barikmo I, Berhe N, Willett WC, Phillips KM, Jacobs DR Jr, Blomhoff R. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010 Jan 22;9:3. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-9-3. PMID: 20096093; PMCID: PMC2841576.