Right from your seven-year-old kid to your seventy-year-old father, one general instruction we all have received from our doctors is, “eat citrus fruits, beets, and greens.” I, for one, got sick of listening to this rant.
Why do you think people of all age groups are advised to consume these fruits and veggies? If ‘vitamins’ is your answer, well, you are partly right. But the bigger hero here would be antioxidants.
Fruits – especially dark berries greens, nuts – and the panoply of edible plants are natural reservoirs of antioxidants. These special foods protect you in powerful ways, so you can stay fit as a fiddle – at seven, seventeen, or seventy! How? You will know – keep scrolling down!
Table Of Contents
- What Are Antioxidants?
- How Do Antioxidants Work?
- What Are The Different Types Of Antioxidants?
- Benefits Of Taking Antioxidants
- How About Antioxidant Supplements?
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are human-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay cell damage caused by oxidation (see below) Vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of antioxidants. Diets high in these elements enhance your immunity and promote longevity (1).
Some common antioxidants we all consume through our diets are vitamins C and E, β-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. These bioactive ingredients interact with harmful reactive chemical species called free radicals.
What do free radicals do to your body? How do these antioxidants eliminate them? And where can you get antioxidants abundantly? I’ve got the answers to all these questions. So, let’s start the quest!
First things first…
How Do Antioxidants Work?
To understand this, you must know more about free radicals – which are constantly produced when the body produces energy. These free radicals are the price we pay for using oxygen to manufacture energy – resulting in high energy, potentially damaging byproducts we call free radicals. These include species known as superoxide ion, hydroxyl radical, hydrogen peroxide, alkoxy radical, hypochlorous acid, peroxynitrite, organic hydroperoxide, and peroxyl radical (2).
The names just flew above your head? Let me simplify them for you. Look at this diagram.
The blue spheres are electrons in a free radical molecule. The green spheres are electrons in an antioxidant molecule. It’s evident from the picture that free radicals have an unpaired or single electron in their outermost orbit (shell) – let’s call it a ‘loner’. This loner needs another unpaired electron or has to pair with another loner (unpaired electron) to become stable.
These loner electrons can interact with normal tissue and cause damage. This damage, referred to as “oxidative stress,” can lead to inflammation, changes in normal tissue structure and function, and cancers. But when these loner electrons interact with antioxidant molecules, they’re neutralized, mitigating the damage they can cause.
So, what do antioxidants do? How do they work?
What Are The Different Types Of Antioxidants?
There are three primary types of antioxidants found in nature. These include phytochemicals, vitamins, and enzymes.
Phytochemicals are plant-based chemical derivatives – some of which are very powerful antioxidants. (They evolve to help plants adapt to exposure to ultraviolet light and other environmental toxins – when we ingest them, we get the benefit!)
Examples: Carotenoids, saponins, polyphenols, phenolic acids, flavonoids, etc.
Our body makes some of them while some come from natural sources like fruits, essential oils, microbes, and the sun!
Examples: Vitamins A, C, E, and D, coenzyme Q10, etc.
Enzymes are types of antioxidants that we manufacture within our bodies from the proteins and minerals we eat as part of our daily diets.
Examples: Superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, and catalases.
Now, let’s get to know the sources of these antioxidants.
What Are The Natural Sources Of Antioxidants?
The antioxidant potential of a food source (which could be a fruit, a veggie, a nut, or a beverage) is measured by an assay called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC).
Higher the ORAC value, stronger is the antioxidant potential of that particular food source (3).
For your convenience, I have clubbed various sources of antioxidants into 7 clusters along with their ORAC values.
Disclaimer: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases these numbers. But it has recently removed its ORAC database from its NDL website due to “mounting evidence that the values indicating anti-oxidant capacity have no relevance to the eﬀects of speciﬁc bioactive compounds.” Though the ORAC values speak volumes about the antioxidant capacity of a food, they shouldn’t be the only indicator to judge the goodness of that food. Please look at other parameters like metabolism, bio-availability, and risks assocaited with such rich foods before zeroing down on one.
So, here we go!
|Vegetable||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
|Cabbage, red, raw||2496|
|Cilantro, leaves, raw||5141|
|Cucumber, peeled, raw||140|
|Ginger root, raw||14840|
|Peppers, green, raw||935|
|Potatoes, white, raw (with skin)||1058|
|Sweet potato, raw||902|
|Tomatoes, red, ripe||387|
|Fruit||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
|Apples, raw (with skin)||3049|
|Blueberries, wild, raw||9621|
|Currants, black, raw||7957|
|Dates, deglet noor||3895|
|Grapefruit, pink, raw||1640|
|Lemons, raw, (without peel)||1346|
|Lime juice, raw||823|
|Plum, black diamond, raw (with peel)||6100|
|Raisins, golden, seedless||10450|
3. Spices And Herbs
|Spice/Herbt||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
4. Nuts And Seeds
|Nuts/Seeds||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
|Brazil nuts, unblanched, dried||1419|
|Cashew nuts, raw||1948|
|Macadamia nuts, dry roasted||1695|
|Pine nuts, dried||720|
|Pistachio nuts, raw||7675|
5. Cereal Grains And Beans
|Cereal||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
|Sorghum grain, red||14000|
|Sumac bran, raw||312400|
|Sumac grain, raw||86800|
|Pinto beans, raw||8033|
|Kidney beans, raw||8606|
|Black beans, raw||8494|
|Beverage||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
7. Miscellaneous Products
|Product||ORAC value (µmol TE/100g)|
|Cocoa, unsweetened powder||55653|
|Peanut butter, smooth||3432|
|Olive oil, extra virgin||372|
|Fish and seafood||30-6500|
|Meat and meat products||0-850|
|Poultry and poultry products||50-1000|
|Snacks and biscuits||0-1170|
By now, you should know what foods to eat and why! Like I said, we already consume a fair fraction of antioxidant-rich foods. The only change needed is to have these foods unprocessed and raw. Wherever possible, replace frying with boiling and sautéing. This prevents the disintegration of antioxidants.
Let’s assume that you took pains to switch from fried to boiled and blanched foods. What changes should you look out for? What will the antioxidants in these foods do to your body? Continue reading to find out.
Benefits Of Taking Antioxidants
1. Skin: Anti-aging, Skin Lightening, And Protective Effects
Like other organs, the skin too continuously produces free radicals like peroxides, superoxides, and singlet oxygen. This happens because of its metabolic activities and exposure to UV rays and visible light.
These free radicals need to be eliminated from your body. Due to accumulation, these highly reactive species trigger cellular damage, accelerate aging, cause cancer (melanomas), inflammation, pigmentation, and acne.
Your body produces enzymes to fight such oxidative stress. But by supplementing antioxidants through diet, you can achieve younger, glowing, and clear skin (5).
2. Liver: Anti-inflammatory, Anticancer, Hepatoprotective Effects
When liver diseases involve oxidative stress, antioxidants are the best medicine. Diseases like cirrhosis, jaundice, hepatocellular carcinoma (cancer), and parasitic infections are aggravated by free radicals.
Antioxidants like curcumin, resveratrol, caffeine, quercetin, naringenin, and silymarin can be effective in this regard.
Also, to combat this oxidative stress, your body produces antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione reductase (6).
3. Heart: Cardioprotective And Hypolipidemic Effects
After the age of 50, 52% of men and 39% of women in the US experience major cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), viz. coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, cardiomyopathies, cardiac hypertrophy, angina, and myocardial infarction.
Excessive oxidative stress generates reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your body, which can cause CVDs. In such cases, what is the best way to stay safe?
Yes, you are right! Antioxidant vitamins C and E and phytochemicals like quercetin, beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein have shown excellent cardioprotective effects.
4. Brain: Antitumor, Antidepressant, Cognition-Promoting Effects
Apart from mutations, high levels of free radicals in the blood increase the incidence and malignancy of brain tumors.
Supplementing your diet with antioxidants has a direct impact on the brain, cognition, learning, and memory.
Higher dietary intake of vitamins E and C during pregnancy helps in protecting the infants from brain tumors and deformities. Antioxidants also inhibit the pro-cancer activities that go on in your body – and can hence prevent tumors altogether (9).
5. Fertility: Therapeutic And Stimulating Effects
An elevated level of free radicals affects various systems in your body. And, believe it or not, fertility is one among them.
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) can have an impact on the sperm count, motility of the sperms, and the maturity or viability of the sperm. In females, poor egg quality, fallopian tube defects, endometriosis, and even ovulatory disorders can arise partly due to ROS in the blood.
Applying antioxidant therapy (vitamins and phytochemicals) to such infertility issues can restore the hormonal balance, scavenge free radicals, and improve spermatogenesis, oogenesis, ovulation pattern, and boost chances of conception (10).
With all these benefits, it is difficult to ignore antioxidants, isn’t it?
Think about the number of antioxidant-rich dishes you can whip up using the foods listed above – endless lists of recipes pop up in my mind already!
And for those of you that feel your diet alone is not enough for getting adequate antioxidants, we have something for you. Read on!
How About Antioxidant Supplements?
1. Do They Work?
Not sure, because there is not enough research evidence to conclude. Some cite side effects while others the benefits. Most of the negative studies look at the effects of a single antioxidant on outcomes of a single (usually end-stage) disorder. Most experts in the nutritional medicine field agree this is not an appropriate way to test the effects of these nutrients.
2. Are They Available In The Market?
While most nutrition experts agree that food is the best way to obtain powerful antioxidants in your diet, there are good quality supplements available on the market. These can be used when deficiencies are determined or if there is an increased need due to illness or health challenges.
3. Will There Be Side Effects?
Taking supplemental antioxidants is generally quite safe, though a few problems are possible. The excessive vitamin-B complex would cause nerve damage due to excessive vitamin B6 ingestion. An overdose of vitamin C can cause nausea, diarrhea, orheadache. Though vitamins B and C are water-soluble and toxicity is quite rare, do take care. And some antioxidant supplements might interact with medications you’d be taking. So, check with your health care provider first.
Nature has given us the most potent weapon to fight the deadliest of disorders – in the form of antioxidants.
Our diet should essentially consist of raw or minimally processed fruits and veggies, and cooked meats in regulated portions. On the contrary, the “standard American diet” provides overprocessed, fried, and greasy food with barely any antioxidants left.
It’s time you switch to healthy eating. And by now, you’d know that food is the simplest, cheapest, and sustainable source of obtaining potent antioxidants.
What’s even better is that there are not many documented side effects of taking these chemical scavengers orally. Safe bet!
So, pick up the ingredients of your choice, create and cook some quick recipes, and write your stories to us. We’d also be happy to address your comments, suggestions, and feedback – put them in the box below.
1. “Antioxidants: In Depth” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S Department of Health and Human Services
2. “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods…” Pharmacognosy Review, US National Library of Medicine
3. “USDA Database for the Oxygen Radical…” Nutrient Data Laboratory, U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA)
4. “The total antioxidant content of more than…” Nutrition Journal, US National Library of Medicine
5. “Antioxidants in dermatology” Anais Brasileiros De Dermatologia, US National Library of Medicine
6. “Antioxidants in liver health” World Journal of Gastrointestinal Pharmacology and Therapeutics
7. “Role of Antioxidants for the Treatment…” Current Pharmaceutical Design, US National Library of Medicine
8. “Antioxidants and Cardiovascular Risk Factors” Diseases, US National Library of Medicine
9. “Can dietary antioxidants reduce the…” Current Drug Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine
10. “Antioxidants for female subfertility” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews
11. “Male Infertility: The Effect of Natural…” Diseases, US National Library of Medicine
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