Antioxidants have been a hot nutrition topic for decades, one that has had staying power as other nutrition trends come and go. Why? Because while antioxidants can be overhyped at times, there is actual substance behind the hype.
Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals, which are substances that exist naturally in the body that can damage our cells and DNA. When you have more free radicals than antioxidants, this creates oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can accelerate aging and increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Your body does a pretty good job of keeping free radicals in check by producing its own antioxidants, but poor diet and exposure to cigarette smoke, pollution, radiation and environmental toxins can produce more free radicals than your body can handle. That’s why eating antioxidant-rich foods is important.
Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, and so are the minerals selenium and manganese. And then there are phytochemicals — naturally occurring substances in plants that have health benefits — many of which behave as antioxidants. These include carotenoids — such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin — as well as flavonoids, polyphenols, catechins and phytoestrogens. The good news is that a varied diet with a lot of plant foods will get you there. And by “plant foods,” I don’t just mean vegetables, although most people would benefit from eating more vegetables.
Fruit has the edge on the antioxidant front, especially deeply colorful, brightly pigmented fruits. That’s because many antioxidant phytochemicals are also pigments. One example is anthocyanins, a group of phytochemicals with red, blue or purple hues that are abundant in most berries and similarly colored produce. Think blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, pomegranates, dried and fresh purple plums, sour cherries and dried sweet cherries. Oranges and apples are good choices, too.