Choosing Foods High In Antioxidants: Finding the Right Balance

May 24, 2010

Blueberries on Branch, by Jim Clark, available under Creative Commons Attribution Licence

When cells oxidize, free radicals, which cause further oxidation, can be produced. Antioxidants stop free radicals from continuing oxidation, which can damage healthy cells. Scientists continue to study the benefits of using antioxidants to fight and prevent many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and an array of diseases that affect the brain, which is particularly prone to oxidative stress.

Antioxidants are found in whole grains, meat, and most abundantly, in fruits. Foods high in antioxidants tend to be more colorful (berries, for example). Some antioxidants are made by the body. (Did you know that the body used to make Vitamin C? The mutation of not making Vitamin C probably spread as trade advanced and fresh fruit was more widely and seasonally available.) You also need other nutrients like zinc and selenium (found in nuts) that your body uses in conjunction with some antioxidants (as always, a varied diet that includes multiple sources of nutrients is ideal).

If you want to increase the amount of antioxidants in your diet, or consider whether you’re getting enough from what you’re currently eating, some notable foods high in antioxidants include:

  • most fruits and vegetables, which are usually more nutritional if you eat them raw or only lightly cooked, as cooking (or long term storage, or processing) can denature the nutrients by exposing them to heat and oxygen. Tomatoes are the exception to this–cooking tomatoes breaks down the cells walls, allowing more lycopene to be easily digested. Eating lycopene has been tied by some studies to lower cancer rates.
    • Fruits, specifically, are a good source of Vitamin C, while Vitamin E is found in veggie oils (hence beauty tips that recommend olive oil as a natural treatment for damaged hair).
  • Cocoa/Chocolate, Tea, coffee, Red Wine and cinnamon
    • Red Wine/Grapes are a good source of polyphenols, but remember that no one advises drinking more than a glass a day, as their are the effects of alcohol to consider (higher rates of breast cancer, liver and brain damage, etc.). In the same vein, you may want to consider how caffeine affects you before drinking multiple cups a day. With tea, most of the caffeine (about 90%) comes out in the first cup, but you can usually brew at least 2-3 cups from a good ball of tea.

Studies are mixed about the benefits of loading yourself up with antioxidants. Basically, there needs to be balance. Cell oxidation is part of a necessary cycle for your body, and it’s only when it gets out of hand that it causes many of the diseases antioxidants are purported to prevent. For example, if you have too many antioxidants they may interfere with the after effects of exercise preventing the rebuilding (strengthening) of the body.

Also, you can overdose on antioxidants. Saturating your body with fat-soluble antioxidants (like beta-Carotene) can be dangerous as they store in your fat cells. Saturating with water-soluble antioxidants is less dangerous as most of it is excreted in urine. Some people pop Vitamin C tablets like they’re candy–all this accomplishes is very expensive urine. If you are unsure if you are getting the right amount of nutrients, consult a nutritionist who can consider your sex, age, height/weight and lifestyle. If that’s not available to you, consider pre-measured antioxidant dietary supplements rather than supplementing each individual nutrient.

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