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You’ve probably been told to eat foods that are high in antioxidants by someone on TV, your doctor or your mother. You may even justify your dark-chocolate-after-dinner habit to knowing it's loaded with these good guys. But can you really explain what makes antioxidants so beneficial to your health? Probably not.
How they work
So let's get to the facts: Antioxidants are compounds that combat free radical damage caused by UV exposure, environmental pollution, stress and even some of the foods we eat. Free radicals are the evildoers because they disrupt normal cell functioning and have been linked to many health problems like asthma, diabetes and more.
Antioxidants either quench the molecule by destroying them, prevent the breakdown of molecules to avoid free radicals from being created or help the body crank out more of its own antioxidants. Antioxidants are essentially the “good guys” that fight the “bad guy” free radicals.
Antioxidants (by fighting the “bad guys”) are best known to help your body by:
- Preventing neuronal degeneration
- Protecting you from cancer
- Helping to prevent heart disease
- Slowing the aging process
- Improving your overall health and immune system
- May even increase your lifespan
Our bodies are capable of making our own antioxidants. But, in order to keep generating a healthy amount of them, you need to eat foods that are rich in antioxidants.
I encourage everyone to eat antioxidant-rich foods at every meal and snack. It's actually a lot easier than you think.
Throw some spinach into your egg scramble, top it with a little dried basil and have some berries on the side. Grab a handful of nuts at snack time and be a real antioxidant hero by coupling it with a cup of green tea.
When lunch time rolls around, chow down on that kale salad and load it up with all sorts of antioxidant goodies like artichoke hearts, pecans and chickpeas. For dinner, double dip with a starter tomato salad and sauteed broccoli rabe next to your burger. Oh, and don't forget to go for some dark chocolate at dessert.
There are many great sources of antioxidants, but the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale is a way to “rate” the power of certain foods' antioxidant powers.
If you need a place to begin with some antioxidant gems, here are seven of my favorites. Focus on one each day this week to give yourself a healthy start.
What’s more fun to eat than steamed artichokes? I love them because they’re one of the best calorie bargains going, at 60 calories each. Artichokes are a great source of phytochemicals that may lower cholesterol levels and are super high on the ORAC scale, containing 7,900 ORAC points in just half a cup.
Their antioxidant power comes from anthocyanins, and may lower LDL (lousy) cholesterol. Pectin, one of the soluble fibers in blueberries, also has cholesterol-lowering properties, and helps to keep you regular. Blueberries show the most power when it comes to boosting memory, cognition, and balance. Researchers believe they do so by reducing inflammation and helping us to overcome the normal effects of aging — all while providing 9,700 ORAC points per one cup serving.
They are high in fiber, full of lean protein and leave you feeling satisfied for hours. They're loaded with phytochemicals which according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) appear to protect our cells from damage that can lead to cancer. A half cup of black beans, one of the tastiest varieties, contains 8,000 ORAC points.
4. Broccoli rabe
One study found that women who ate the most leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables had brains that were one to two years “younger” in performance than those who ate fewer. Smart girls eat greens? Or girls who eat greens are smart? Either way — eat up! One bunch of steamed broccoli rabe provides 6,800 ORAC points.
There’s a reason most of us drool when we walk by a bakery, and cinnamon is a big part of it. Just the smell of this heavenly spice is enough to curb fatigue, ease frustration and increase alertness. Researchers believe consumption of cinnamon may inhibit the progression of certain types of Alzheimer’s cells. But, don’t be afraid of other spices and herbs, they all get a gold star. One teaspoon of cinnamon adds a whopping 7,000 ORAC points to your diet.
Besides having plenty of vitamin C, tomatoes are also rich in lycopene, a carotenoid that helps to prevent prostate cancer and heart disease. For maximum lycopene, eat your tomatoes cooked. A serving of three diced plum tomatoes adds 1,200 ORAC points to your day.
For many people, pistachios are a great diet tool because the time it takes to pop the little green guys out of their shells makes you eat them more slowly. In many ways, they are nutritionally like other nuts, especially almonds. But pistachios are also packed with plant sterols, which researchers think lower the risk of heart disease. A serving of eighteen pistachios has 1,000 ORAC points.