Antioxidants: Arm Yourself With Food

We’ve all heard of free radicals, yet, many of us are not quite sure what they are or why they’re so scary. Free radicals are unstable molecules, produced by normal bodily functions, which can cause damage to cells.

Posted on | Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD | Comments ()
Antioxidants: Arm Yourself With Food
Antioxidants: Arm Yourself With Food

We’ve all heard of free radicals, yet, many of us are not quite sure what they are or why they’re so scary. Free radicals are unstable molecules, produced by normal bodily functions, which can cause damage to cells.

But what if we had a sheet of armor to protect ourselves from them? As it turns out, we do, and it’s found in deeply hued fruits and vegetables. When we eat these foods, we benefit from a natural defense system that includes anthocyanins, flavonoids, lutein, lycopene, catechins, selenium, coenzyme Q10, and vitamins C and E. 

How does one take advantage of this “army”? First, make it a goal to have at least five colors represented in your diet every day. Including a variety of colorful fruits and veggies will increase the number of antioxidants you consume, resulting in a more fit and fantastic you at the end of the rainbow. Second, prepare them in a way that gives you the most bang for your nutritional buck.

Go for Greens

Green foods contain vitamin C, vitamin E, quercetin (a flavanoid), and sulforaphane. Just one cup or a fist-size portion of green foods per day provides plenty of antioxidants.

Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, spinach, escarole, and parsley contain isothiocynates (ITCs), which are important for detoxification.

Spinach contains a very high level of antioxidant activity and just one cup provides all of your vitamin A and K for the day, as well as folate. Spinach is powerful in preventing cancer, especially prostate cancer. Combining vitamin C with your spinach enhances iron absorption, so throw in some additional color by adding mandarin oranges to your spinach salad. Green tea is noted for its high amount of catechins, antioxidants that may aid in cancer prevention. 

Say Yes to Yellow and Orange

Fruits and veggies that are bright yellow and orange contain vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy organs and prevents bacteria from growing. Vitamin A helps prevent cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even depression.

Bananas contain beta-carotene and vitamins A, C and E, lutein, and selenium. The riper the banana, the higher the antioxidants – so don’t throw them out when they start to turn brown. Carrots are also an excellent source of vitamin A, and butternut squash is loaded with antioxidants. Get at least two servings of yellow or orange fruits and vegetables in every day!

Purple Powerhouses

Foods with purple skins contain anthocyanins, which protect cells from damage and heal already damaged cells. These foods promote eye health and help to prevent cancer, diabetes and stroke. They help to relax blood vessels which has heart benefits, and can lower LDL. Include purple fruits and veggies four to five times per week.

Plums or prunes, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and black currants are all good sources of anthocyanins – the darker the pigment, the higher the amount of antioxidants.

Red wine is also a good source of anthocyanins. Cabernet has the highest level of antioxidants. Wine contains resveratrol, which can prevent heart disease by increasing levels of good cholesterol and protecting against arterial damage. Always drink any type of alcohol in moderation. For women, one 4-ounce glass of red wine per day is plenty.

Race to the Reds

Cherries and strawberries are packed with anthocyanins, flavonoids that may help in reducing blood pressure and LDL cholesterol). Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, an antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage.

Cooking by Color

With red foods, such as tomatoes, heat is important for optimal lycopene absorption because it breaks down the cell wall to unleash potency.

Overcooking kills nutrients in green foods, such as broccoli. If you do cook it, lightly sauté or steam. Never microwave broccoli because the intense heat drains all of the nutrients. The same goes for boiling; you’ll notice your water turns green. The color is where all the nutrients are. Chop florets in half or quarters to get the healthful enzymes to emerge. Artichokes are one of the only foods that stand up to the cooking process and maintain nutrients if cooked.

It’s best to cook carrots whole; cutting them allows more nutrients to escape. When making sweet potatoes, bake, broil and/or steam. Further, the nutrients are contained when the potato is cooked in its own skin, so resist the urge to peel!

Complete your color wheel with wild salmon for added benefits from antioxidants. Baking, broiling, poaching and steaming are the best methods to cook salmon. Frying salmon or any fish will sap the nutrients. Grilling salmon on an outdoor grill can add cancer-causing heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. If you crave grilled salmon, adding rosemary before grilling may actually combat HCA production.

What’s My Favorite Color?

Green! I love all the leafy greens like kale and spinach and cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. They have huge cancer-preventing properties and are the most powerful for longevity.

Blog written by Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD
Kristin Kirkpatrick is a registered dietitian and Wellness Manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. Kristin has...