Here is my series of blogs on diet and how it may improve health and help treat disease. Let us take a deep dive into the world of antioxidant rich foods. In our minds, the word antioxidant is synonymous with blueberries. There are many more sources of antioxidants than this delightful berry.
Antioxidant is a term used to describe any substance that neutralizes free radicals. When our body is exposed to pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, UV radiation, etc., our body produces free radicals. They are also produced when we digest food and when we exercise. This means that free radicals are abundant, and they can cause damage to cells by a process called oxidative stress.
Free radicals can cause damage to DNA of normal cells, cause genetic alterations in cell functioning, and end up increasing inflammation leading to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
Oxidation of LDL (bad cholesterol) can increase the risk of atherosclerosis, the hardening of blood vessels which increases risk of heart disease. Oxidative stress appears to play a causative role in diseases such as Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s dementia. It is implicated in accelerated skin aging and eye diseases, such as cataract and age related macular degeneration. Oxidative stress also plays a role in pregnancy, causing preeclampsia and fetal growth retardation. Antioxidants are beneficial due to their chemical property of neutralizing oxidative stress.
Plant based foods tend to be richer in antioxidants than meat and fish. Fruits and vegetables are rich in phytochemicals such as flavonoids, carotenoids, coenzymeQ10, and vitamin C which are powerful antioxidants. Here is a list of foods that are easily available to us and have high antioxidant content. There are regional differences in the antioxidant content of foods. This is dependent on the climate and geographic growing conditions. One such example is the Indian gooseberry (aka amla), its antioxidant content far surpasses many other foods.
Walnuts (higher with pellicle)
Pecans (higher with the pellicle)
Fruits: (in decreasing order of antioxidant content-so don’t fret if you can not find or afford blueberries)
Vegetables: Veggies by and large are a very rich source of antioxidants. Some with the highest content include: (cucumbers and lettuce have very low antioxidant levels.)
Spices and herbs: Even in small quantities, they pack a punch when it comes to antioxidant content.
Desserts: baking cocoa is an excellent source of antioxidants. So dark chocolate (with high cocoa content) is a good source of antioxidants.
Meat, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish do not have very high antioxidant levels. They are nutritious for other reasons, but not necessarily for their antioxidant content. This raises the question , how much antioxidant do we have to consume on a daily basis? Based on a study, it was estimated that one should consume between 8000 to 11000 micromoles TE (Trolox Equivalents) per day. If you would like to get very detailed about it, a study published in Nutrition Journal 2010 reported the antioxidant content of 3100 different foods. A simpler way, however, would be to load up on pigmented fruits and vegetables with every meal, add some delicious flavor to your foods with some of the spices and herbs listed above, sip some green tea, replace some of the grains and flours with the ingredients listed above, and you will be on the right track. Dietary guidelines recommend consuming 1.5-2 cups of fruits and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day.
Here are some examples to help you get started:
Add walnuts, blackberries and cinnamon to a bowl of oatmeal.
Consider adding beets or red peppers to a lunch time salad and top it off with sunflower seeds.
Season grilled chicken with dried mint leaves.
Grill up some artichoke and top it off with ground pecans.
There are multiple ways to get creative when you are armed with the right information. The best approach is to explore each of these antioxidant rich foods and find ways to incorporate them into meals or snacks.
Can these antioxidants be bottled up into a pill? Although antioxidant supplements are available, numerous studies have failed to prove that they help overcome disease, sometimes they can be deleterious. There are no easy shortcuts! There is no easy way to replace a healthy diet!