You only need to be mildly interested in health to be familiar with the buzziest of wellness words: antioxidant. But what are they, really? Antioxidant is a classification given to certain chemical compounds - vitamin A (also known as beta carotene) or polyphenols (which have been linked to the benefits surrounding red wine), for example. In our bodies, antioxidants help to neutralize the negative action of excess free radical formation, says Robert T. Mankowski, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging.
Without getting too complicated, our cells are constantly working to keep us healthy. But during that process, the cells breathe, reproduce and break down, along with a number of other functions - many of which require a chemical process called oxidation. But that process produces free radicals, which can actually cause damaging “oxidative stress.” This can trigger serious health issues. Everything from cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer’s. That’s why you want to ingest as many antioxidants as possible. Dr. Mankowski says they work to catch free radicals and keep them from doing harm. So where can you get these hard working antioxidants? In some of your favorite foods. Here are the top ten to add to your grocery list.
Dark chocolate almost always tops a list of antioxidant-rich superfoods. And for good reason. It’s delicious, first and foremost. But based on a FRAP analysis, dark chocolate has up to 15 mmol of antioxidants in just 3.5 ounces. That’s more than in most berries. It’s also chock full of minerals that are beneficial for reducing the risk of developing heart disease by drastically lowering triglyceride levels and blood pressure, while lowering the body’s natural response to inflammation as well.
2. Red Cabbage
Time to start making more slaw with red cabbage. The crunchy cruciferous veggie contains a slew of essential nutrients such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and phosphorus which are beneficial for functioning a healthy growth and muscle development. According to a FRAP analysis, red cabbage provides more than four times the amount of antioxidants in regular cabbage - that’s because red cabbage contains anthocyanins, a group of antioxidants that give red cabbage its color (the same ones found in strawberries and raspberries). These have been found to reduce inflammation, protect against heart disease and reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Almonds may pack a protein punch, but pecans are your antioxidant-rich nut. The nut native to Mexico and South America is a good source of healthy fats and minerals, plus contains a high amount of antioxidants. What’s more, pecans have been found to help raise antioxidant levels in your blood. Rich in folic acid, calcium, magnesium, along with several B vitamins and zinc, it only takes about an ounce (or about 8 pecans) to get your nutritional and antioxidant benefits.
For just some simple leaves, spinach is one of the most nutritionally dense vegetables. It’s not only loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but it’s incredibly versatile and low in calories. Stack it onto sandwiches, mix it into your salads and smoothies or sauté it for dinnertime side dish. Spinach is a great source of lutein and zeaxanthin - two antioxidants that are known to help protect your eyes from damaging UV light and other harmful light wavelengths. One more reason to add it to your diet: A study in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that the carotenoid neoxanthin in spinach can kill prostate cancer cells, while the beta-carotene fights colon cancer.
5. Dried Plums
Also known as prunes, these squishy, shriveled plums are not only high in fiber but they’re rich in copper and boron, both of which can help strengthen bones. And a Tufts University study found they help slow the aging process in both the body and brain. Researchers ranked them among the highest antioxidant-rich fruits using an analysis called ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) and prunes top the list with more than twice the level of antioxidants than other high-scoring fruits such as blueberries or raisins.
All berries are healthy, but strawberries and blueberries are at the top of the heap. Strawberries contain a type of antioxidant called anthocyanins (which give them their red color). And research has shown that anthocyanins may help reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Meanwhile, those potent little blueberries contain more antioxidants than any other fruit. Drizzle your berries with a little lemon juice and honey for a tasty, tangy and disease-fighting supersnack.
Other than fiber, beans don’t get a lot of nutritional cred, but beans have an impressive antioxidant supply as well. Pinto beans, specifically, contain the antioxidant kaempferol. This particular antioxidant has been linked to impressive health benefits, from reducing chronic inflammation in the body to suppressing cancer growth. Other antioxidant-rich beans include black beans and red kidney beans.
Picky eaters may turn up their noses at the cruciferous all-star, but just one cup of broccoli contains a hearty dose of calcium, as well as manganese, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. It's also naturally high in antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin and carotene. And that's in addition to its high concentration of vitamins - including A, C, and K - and the phytonutrient sulforaphane, which studies at Johns Hopkins University suggest has powerful anticancer properties.
9. Citrus Peels
Love oranges, lemons and grapefruits? Outstanding! Keep eating them - just don’t throw out the peels. Because the peel contains the highest proportion of natural antioxidants such as natural flavonoid, phenolic, ascorbic acid and carotenoids. They also contain a powerful compound that boosts the body’s production of detoxifying enzymes. In fact, it’s been found to reduce the risk of squamous-cell skin cancer by 30 percent and shrink existing tumors, say University of Arizona researchers.