In Honor of National Nutrition Month, let’s talk about antioxidants. If you’ve ever tried to improve your diet, chances are, you’ve heard of this. An antioxidant is a substance that helps to protect the cells against damage. This damage is caused by free radicals. Free radicals are particles, often the byproduct of chemical reactions, that cause damage to healthy cells.
Free radicals are a natural byproduct of cellular reactions. They can come from the environment, such as pollution and first or second-hand smoke. Free radicals can also be a byproduct of digestion and absorption. Damage caused by these free radicals, over time, can lead to specific health conditions such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) or cancer. The natural aging process also damages cells, so think of your antioxidants as your anti-aging remedy.
Certain types of food can increase the stress response in the body. This additional stress can create more free radicals. Antioxidants have protective properties, repairing cells and preventing DNA damage. We have more direct control over what goes into our bodies, so our dietary choices play a significant role in managing damage by free radicals.
Including fruits and vegetables in the diet, which are excellent sources of antioxidants, has been found to reduce risks for CVD and certain types of cancer. Vibrant and bright-colored foods also have protective phytochemicals. These would be naturally occurring foods like broccoli or berries. Be sure to eat a rainbow of colorful foods (not candy!) for the most benefit. Keep in mind some highly processed foods can be colorful. However, this results from artificial colors and dyes that are not antioxidants. Choose fresh and frozen when possible. Even canned fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants; check the ingredients list so that you are aware of sodium and added sugar levels.
Antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium, lycopene, carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Here are some sources of these nutrients.
- Red. Lycopene helps protect against heart disease and some cancers. This is found in red-pigmented foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, and red bell peppers.
- Orange and yellow. Vitamins C and E are both powerful antioxidants. Citrus fruits and many vegetables are rich in vitamin C, and plant oils, peanuts, and unprocessed grains are good sources of vitamin E.
- Green. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin K and folic acid, which help with blood clotting and repair DNA. Try greens like kale, cabbage, and broccoli.
- Blue and purple. Anthocyanins are a phytochemical with powerful protective benefits and have shown evidence of promoting brain function. You can receive these benefits by eating blueberries, plums, eggplant, and prunes.
- White and brown. Lutein and zeaxanthin are generally found together in foods like wheat products and eggs. These nutrients protect the eyes and vision function.
Multiple antioxidants can be found in one food source. However, the color often indicates which antioxidant is more abundant in the food.
Zhang, Z., Bergan, R., Shannon, J., Slatore, C. G., Bobe, G., & Takata, Y. (2018). The Role of Cruciferous Vegetables and Isothiocyanates for Lung Cancer Prevention: Current Status, Challenges, and Future Research Directions. Molecular nutrition & food research, 62(18), e1700936. https://doi-org.une.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/mnfr.201700936
Ellis, Esther. Antioxidants Protecting Healthy Cells. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Published March 25, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.eatright.org/health/essential-nutrients/vitamins/antioxidants-protecting-healthy-cells
Murillo, A. G., Hu, S., & Fernandez, M. L. (2019). Zeaxanthin: Metabolism, Properties, and Antioxidant Protection of Eyes, Heart, Liver, and Skin. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 8(9), 390. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox8090390