Wellness Simplified: A Refresher Course On The Necessity And Benefits Of Antioxidants (+ Where To Find Them!)

From ginger to lentils, we're talking about the benefits of antioxidants — what they do for you and your health.
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Image Credit: Brooke Lark 

Image Credit: Brooke Lark 

In the name of a simplified wellness approach, health and life coach Lisa Levine is back to walk us through why antioxidants are a necessary component to our diet and what they do to help our overall health. In short, we need them and brighter is better when determining which to add to our diet. 

If you’re like most people you’ve probably heard that antioxidants are supposed to be good for you. You may have also heard they fight free radicals. But what exactly all this means may still be a puzzle, because what the heck is wellness, anyways

If this is you, today is your lucky day. Here’s where I break it all down for you so you’ll never have to wonder about what antioxidants are ever again. In fact, it’s not very overwhelming at all — and worth having handy in your guide to healthy living.

I’m going to skip the science-y part that talks about electrons and molecules and get right to the point: Antioxidants are powerful phytochemical compounds that naturally occur in almost all plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, coffee, tea, wine and chocolate (yay!). They’re called antioxidants because they protect cells from damage caused by oxidants (free radicals) — and in our modern society we have way more oxidative stressors than ever before. 

However, we do need some free radicals in our bodies because they can contribute to the good stuff (like fend off various microbes and such), but too many free radicals can contribute to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, certain cancers, vision loss and a bunch of other conditions we want to avoid. They can also contribute to accelerated signs of aging and trigger the activation of harmful genes you have in your DNA, so making sure we get plenty of antioxidants in our diet is an excellent plan of attack.

There are literally thousands of different antioxidants available but you may be familiar with the names of some of the more common ones: resversatrol (found in wine), flavanoids, catechins and lycopene, to name a few. Certain vitamins like C, E and beta-carotene can also act like antioxidants as well as minerals like selenium, zinc and manganese and compounds like Coenzyme Q10, glutathione and Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA).

Antioxidants came into the health spotlight in the 90s when scientists figured out the connection between free radicals and the diseases mentioned above. The media (and the food industry) jumped on the bandwagon and the terms superfood and rich in antioxidants were born.

A superfood is determined by the number of ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) units it contains. Developed by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health, ORAC units measure the level of antioxidants in foods (full list on Superfoodly). Here are a few worth mentioning:

Grapes especially dark-colored ones, are loaded with phytochemicals or antioxidants like resveratrol and proanthocyanidin that may help protect against cancer and heart disease be good for your immune system.

Cacao/cocoa powder contains antioxidants like flavonoids, which are known to help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart. To improve circulation or heart health, adding cacao powder into smoothies and healthy baked goods is a good call. When eating chocolate, the darker it is the healthier it is so aim for a cacao content of at least 70%. (I like to aim for 85% or higher.) Avoid Dutch or alkalized cocoa, because that means the powder has been processed and up to 90% of the antioxidants are gone. Look for the raw or non-alkalized version to get all the antioxidants benefits.

Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine and is what gives curries and mustard its yellow color. Turmeric contains curcumin, which acts like an antioxidant through its powerful ability to help tame chronic and acute inflammation that leads to conditions like arthritis, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, depression and others. Also know: Adding black pepper to dishes with turmeric increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2,000 percent.

Red oak leaf lettuce has a much higher antioxidant value than many other leafy greens, so find some at your local farmer’s market to get good amounts of anthocyanin, a red flavonoid you won’t find in greens like spinach or kale. (Kale is still a good choice though.) It's a member of the cruciferous veggie family (full of the antioxidant isothiocyanates), which includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, and comes in many varieties including green, purple, smooth, and curly. Try making your own kale chips at home. Remember it’s important to stick to organic varieties in the dirty dozen list (the top dozen vegetables that contain the most pesticides). 

Berries, from exotic ones like acai and goji berries to blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries — they are all full of anthocyanins, and may help reduce the risk of heart disease among. Wild blueberries, which have an ORAC score nearly twice that of regular blueberries, can be found in the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. They make a great addition to smoothies and baked goods.

Green tea is known for being high in antioxidants and has been linked to a slew of health benefits, but matcha is like green tea on steroids. It uses the whole leaf in powdered form. Matcha is rich in a unique type of antioxidant known as catechins, which have powerful cancer-fighting properties. Catechins also help increase metabolism, promote physical endurance, and aid in weight loss. I have matcha tea tea every morning and this is how I make it.

Ginger raises levels of the powerful antioxidant glutathione in the body and is touted for all kinds of benefits, including healthy aging. Ginger is also great for easing nausea, stomach upset, and is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, helps sore throats, colds, headaches and may even impact diabetes and cancer. Make fresh ginger tea by adding finely chopped or grated ginger to boiling water and letting it steep for about five minutes. Strain out the ginger and add honey and/or lemon — especially good when fighting a sore throat or virus.

Lentils are high in protein and other essential nutrients including folate, iron, potassium, and a slew of antioxidants like polyphenols and vitamins A and C. The iron will help fight off anemia, which is especially common among those with low-iron diets (vegans and vegetarians). Lentils are also low on the glycemic index, meaning they cause blood sugar to spike less quickly than other starches. When cooking, adding in spices such as fennel, cumin or ginger, or some seaweed (like kombu or arame), which can help make beans more digestible and add more antioxidants and nutrients.

Nuts are loaded with antioxidants and with all slightly different impacts. Pecans are the highest antioxidant nut, although they are lower in protein than other nuts like almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and cashews. Walnuts rank as number two for antioxidant content, and are especially good for brain health. Hazelnuts, pistachios, and Brazil nuts are also high on the ORAC list. (But remember, all nuts are calorically dense so eat in moderation.)

The bottom line: Eat foods that represent all the colors of the rainbow to get the full spectrum of antioxidant power. The deeper the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more antioxidants it holds. And whenever possible eat them with skin on because the outer layer is loaded with antioxidants.

That’s today’s lesson, friends. It’s my pleasure to help you do health right.

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