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Learn about natural antioxidant foods to include in your diet to help support your immune system and diet-related inflammation.
Natural Antioxidants or Supplements
Frequently published studies tout the benefits of antioxidants. So we know that antioxidants are beneficial.
Antioxidants are made naturally in our body or can be obtained from outside sources, the food we eat, or supplements.
One of the healthiest forms of antioxidants made outside the body is plant-based.
But, to maximize the amounts of antioxidants we want it is often more than we would like to eat. Why not take supplements to make up the difference? Here are some things to consider.
Some studies looking at taking high doses of specific supplemental antioxidants have failed to show the same benefits of natural antioxidants found in food. In addition,
- Research is finding that the body is better at recognizing natural antioxidants found in food sources.2
- Studies looking at supplemental antioxidants have found that more is not necessarily better. In fact, in some cases, high doses of supplemental antioxidants are toxic or disrupt the body's natural balance of free radicals to antioxidants.3
- Lastly, antioxidants are not found in plants in isolation. They are part of an intricate mix of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other substances that make up fruit and vegetables. It is thought that this natural mix is what makes the antioxidants found in food so powerful.3
Best Food With Natural Antioxidants
Plants produce and store a type of antioxidant called phytochemicals. There are many different types of phytochemicals such as vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, lycopene, selenium, sulforaphane, flavinoids, and isoflavones.
These phytochemicals are found in the following fruits and vegetables. Some you may be familiar with, but check out these others:
- sunflower seeds,
Beta-Carotene (look for orange-colored fruit and vegetables)
- apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes
- carrots, squash, sweet potatoes
Lycopene (look for red-colored fruit and vegetables)
- apricots, cranberries, pink grapefruit, papaya, watermelon
- brazil nuts
- Brussel sprouts,
- cabbage, especially the red variety
- apples, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, lemons, mangoes
- red cabbage, red onion, squash
- soy products
Top 5 Food Types with Natural Antioxidants
Since antioxidants are found in various amounts in different types of food, the Nutrition Journal created a list of the amounts of antioxidants in food sources.4
It compares plant-based, animal-based, and mixed food antioxidant content.
As would be expected, plant-based food leads the way with the most antioxidants. They note that the reason plant-based food leads is due to the:
- spices and herbs,
- traditional herbal medicine, and
- vitamin supplement categories.
which all contain high amounts of antioxidants.
Include These Food Groups
When looking at categories of food to include in your diet, the top categories include, and you may find a couple of categories surprising:
- spices and herbs (basil, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cloves, dill, ginger, etc)
- berries and berry products (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, etc)
- beverages (coffee (black), red wine, tea, and fruit juices
- chocolate and sweets (primarily chocolate)
- nuts and seeds (walnuts, pecans, and sunflower seeds
Beyond these top 5 categories, consider including dried fruit:,
- tomatoes, and others
in your recipes. They are concentrated forms of fruit and are packed with antioxidants.
For vegetables, remember:
- red cabbage
- blue cauliflower
- bell peppers
- kale and spinach
You may be seeing a common theme. The best food to include in your diet is missing protein, dairy, and grains. These foods contain little antioxidant value, although they provide other nutrients that are important in a healthy diet.
The key, therefore, is to focus on a colorful palate of fruit and vegetables, that is liberally seasoned with herbs and spice and is accompanied by grains and protein.
To learn more about seasoning your recipes, check out my post on Mediterranean Spices and Herbs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Antioxidants are substances that help decrease or eliminate the effects of potentially harmful chemicals, such as free radicals.
They support your body's natural defenses to oxidative stress and damage which may be a result of excess free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage to cells, tissues, and proteins in the body. While free radicals often get a bad rap, in reality, we couldn't live without them.
The body produces free radicals when it produces energy from the food we eat. We need free radicals to help control the blood flow through our arteries, fight infections, and keep our brains sharp and focused.
To keep free radicals in check, our body uses antioxidants to neutralize excess free radicals. This natural check and balance allows free radicals to do their job. The problem starts when free radicals outnumber the antioxidants available to keep them in check.
As noted above, free radicals are a natural by-product of the body's energy production. But as we age, our body becomes less efficient at producing the antioxidants to keep them in check. This is especially an issue when eating a poor diet. In addition, exposure to pollution, radiation, smoke, and the sun all increase the production of free radicals in the body.
Chronically, when the production of free radicals exceeds the body's internal antioxidant balance, this imbalance has been linked to cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, and other diseases of metabolism and the immune system.
At a high level, antioxidants help support your body's natural defenses to free radicals. Antioxidants help stabilize excess free radicals so they do less damage to your body.
More specifically, they help boost the body's defenses and help cleanse free- radicals from the body.
Many antioxidants support the body's fight against bacterial, viral, and inflammatory assault. For example, regular consumption of isoflavones may support cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), an unhealthy cholesterol. Learn more about Foods that decrease inflammation in my post Foods that Decrease Inflammation.
The benefits of regular consumption of antioxidants have been shown to include anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-aging, and anticancer effects.1
These free radical and antioxidant changes are happening at the cellular level so you may be thinking there is little you can do to influence this cellular activity.
But, there is one thing you can do...include more plants in your diet.
January 2024 Update: Minor post updates.