We often hear about healthy foods being rich in antioxidants, and the importance of incorporating enough of these into our diet. It is easy to nod, agree and feel good about following this advice without really understanding what antioxidants are, and why they are beneficial to our health.
Antioxidants essentially prevent damage to important cells. They do this by preventing molecules from reacting to oxygen and becoming highly chemically reactive. Without antioxidants, these potentially dangerous molecules, known as free radicals, have free reign in the body, able to react with and damage anything they encounter, such as DNA. Antioxidants can stop this chain reaction in its tracks. They are essentially your body’s first line of defence, keeping free radicals under control, counteracting their damaging effects and removing them from your bloodstream.
Although the body can produce antioxidants, it also produces far more free radicals. As a result, it is important to incorporate antioxidants into the diet in order to maintain the balance between the two, and prevent degeneration of tissue and damage to important cells in the body.
What are the health benefits of antioxidants?
An explanation about how antioxidants prevent a chain of destructive chemical reactions in the body is all very well, but it is not very clear what benefit this is to the body.
Dietary antioxidant vitamins include vitamins A, C and E, as well as beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and selenium. Diets rich in antioxidants have been associated with better:
Blood sugar stability
It is thought that different antioxidants benefit the body in different ways. For example, beta-carotene has been shown to have health benefits for the skin and has also been linked to good eye health. Lycopene is considered to be beneficial for prostate health, including helping to reduce the symptoms of enlarged prostate, and vitamin C is a superhero when it comes to your health, boosting your immune system and protecting your heart.
Clearly, with antioxidants benefiting your body and health in so many ways, it is worth finding ways to increase your intake of antioxidants. One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate more antioxidant-rich foods into the diet.
What are the best sources of antioxidants in food?
They best way to introduce antioxidants into your diet is to eat foods which are naturally rich in antioxidants, such as fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds:
Vitamin A – rich foods include carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, mango and dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach
Vitamin C – found in most fruits and vegetables but it is highest in strawberries, oranges, papaya, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, pineapple, kiwi, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, kale and broccoli
Vitamin E – found in nuts and seeds such as almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds. Other foods rich in vitamin E include spinach, kale, Swiss chard and avocado
Beta-caroteneis a provitamin that the body converts into vitamin A. Foods rich in this nutrient are carrots, peppers, sweet potato, pumpkin, beetroot, papayas, apricots, goji berries and kale
Lutein is found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard and romaine lettuce. It’s also found in broccoli, courgette, peas and Brussels sprouts
Lycopene is an antioxidant primarily found in tomatoes and other foods of similar colour and pigmentation such as watermelon, papayas, grapefruit, mango and red cabbage
Selenium rich foods include Brazil nuts, chia seeds, brown rice, sunflower, sesame and linseed (flaxseeds), whole wheat bread, mushrooms and whole grains.
Antioxidant rich meals
It’s easier than you think to boost your antioxidant intake thanks to three food types – smoothies, soups and salads. These combine several fruits and vegetables to make delicious meals. For example, you can have an antioxidant-rich smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and salad for dinner.
Here are a few delicious recipes which can help you boost your antioxidant intake:
Blueberry & Kiwi Smoothie – Blend together blueberries, kiwis, dates and almond milk in a blender and enjoy
Carrot & Lentil Soup – In a pan boil carrots and red lentils together with vegetable stock for 15 minutes. Cool slightly and blitz for a comforting soup
Avocado & Grapefruit Salad – a refreshing salad of avocado, pink grapefruit, red grapes, fresh baby spinach and pine nuts will have you coming back for more!
Packed full of nutrients and rich in vitamin A and C, sprouts are an excellent way to add extra antioxidants to your meals. Sprinkle them over your salads or garnish your soup with them for some extra goodness and flavour. Grow your own for a fresh supply of this nutritious food. Sprouting is fun, easy and only takes between 3 and 5 days to grow your own fresh supply of this nutritious food. The easiest ones to start with are mung beans and alfalfa, both available from Good Earth
Refined sugar and simple carbohydrates are likely to inhibit the absorption of antioxidants, so cutting down on processed foods can help you to get the best out of your antioxidant rich food.
Excessive exercise can lead to the production of more free radicals than antioxidants, so regular moderate exercise, such as walking or swimming is most likely to be of benefit.
Stress promotes the production of free radicals, so staying calm and relaxed will give the antioxidants a helping hand in the battle against the radicals. While this may sound simple, reducing stress is often easier said than done.
Smoking reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and encourages the build-up of toxins in the body. For this reason, even if you eat plenty of antioxidants, smoking will make it difficult for your body to extract and absorb them. Additionally, each cigarette uses up about 25mg of the body’s resource of vitamin C, quickly depleting our body of antioxidants.