By Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Lifescript Nutrition Expert
How Antioxidants Work
What do antioxidants really do? Shield our cells from free radical damage.
To understand how they work, think about peeled potatoes and sliced apples. If you leave them on the counter for several minutes, they turn an unappealing shade of brown.
That’s because when you cut the apple or potato, you exposed the inner flesh to air, allowing oxygen to react with chemicals found under the skin.
Squeeze on some orange or lemon and you won’t have this unappetizing problem. The vitamin C in the juice is an antioxidant, a compound that combats oxidation and prevents cellular damage.
It’s the same with your body. Pollution, toxins, smoking and normal metabolism create damaging free radicals – highly reactive molecules ready to pounce on any nearby molecule, including proteins and DNA.
Fortunately, antioxidants can protect your DNA and other molecules by stabilizing free radicals before they have a chance to strike.
Eat fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods every day and your body will have more molecules that can react with free radicals.
Push the salad bowl away and you’ll set yourself up for chronic disease and premature signs of aging.
Nature has provided us with an abundance of antioxidants. Some are familiar, others not.
Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene (the plant form of vitamin A) and the mineral selenium are well-known. Others, phytochemicals, or plant chemicals, may not be as familiar. Among them:
• Lycopene (found in tomatoes)
• Lutein (green leafy vegetables)
• Ellagic acid (berries)
• Resveratrol (grapes)
• Anthocyanins (blueberries and pomegranate)
•Antioxidant Over-Achievers
•Many foods contain antioxidant properties, but a few give you the most disease-fighting bang for your bite.
•These antioxidant all-stars include: berries, walnuts, pomegranate juice and grape juice, unsweetened baking chocolate, brewed tea and coffee, red wine, artichokes, dried beans, dried cloves, cherries, cabbage, spinach, and many other fruits, vegetables and spices.
•You don’t have to munch carrots and raw broccoli from dawn to dusk, but you need to start thinking about fruits and veggies long before dinner to get the recommended daily 4-1/2 cups – equal to nine servings.
•Sounds like a lot, but don’t throw in the dishtowel yet. Here are 40 easy ways to boost your antioxidant intake:
Start Early
1. A small glass of 100% fruit juice is the perfect energizing start to your day. Vary your juices to balance your nutrient intake. Try the usual orange and grapefruit juice and the not-so-usual pomegranate and blueberry.
2. Top eggs with your favorite store-bought salsa. 3. Add sautéed mushrooms, onions, red and yellow bell peppers, or tomatoes to omelets.
4. Slice peaches, bananas, strawberries, or other fresh fruit onto your cereal.
5. Mix dried cranberries or raisins into your oatmeal.
6. Toss frozen fruit, low-fat yogurt and nutmeg or sweetener in a blender for a quick out-the-door breakfast smoothie.
Punch Up Your Cooking
7. Thread some pineapple, nectarines, bell peppers, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes in with your chicken or steak kabobs.
8. Add canned or frozen vegetables to soups.
9. Build your own veggie pizza. Top a plain cheese pie with spinach, fresh herbs such as basil and tarragon, bell peppers, mushrooms, broccoli or small pineapple cubes.
10. Use spaghetti squash in place of pasta.
11. Add zucchini, green beans or eggplant to your favorite jarred spaghetti sauce.
12. Pack pasta and potato salads with extra veggies. Be colorful and toss in broccoli, red bell peppers, carrots and purple onion.
13. Perk up a dull green salad with nuts, dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, pomegranate seeds, apple slices, red beans or jarred artichokes.
14. One to two days a week, wash, chop and separate raw veggies into plastic bags. You’ll have carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, bell peppers, celery, zucchini and more antioxidant-packed foods handy to toss into salads or add to casseroles.
15. Sneak in some extra beans. For example, thicken traditional chili or a favorite soup with a can of mashed white beans. No one will know they’re there.
16. Top nachos with kidney beans.
17. Mix apples, grapes and walnuts in your chicken salad. Try white beans and diced carrots in tuna salad.
18. Add fresh herbs to salads. When using them in hot food, add them toward the end of cooking.
19. Learn to cook with the most antioxidant-rich herbs and spices: ground clove, dried oregano, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, turmeric powder, dried basil, ground mustard seed, curry powder, paprika and chili powder.
20. Put individual servings of grapes, cherries or raw veggies into small plastic bags. Keep them at eye level in the refrigerator, not tucked behind the leftover takeout. Grabbing a high-fiber, antioxidant-packed snack should be as easy as grabbing a bag of chips.
21. Mix berries and nuts into nonfat yogurt.
22. Keep an old breath mint tin filled with nuts. Pull it out when you’re stuck in traffic and need an energy boost.
23. Add a variety of dried fruit to trail mix.
Out and About
24. In restaurants, start your meal with a vegetable or bean soup or a colorful mixed salad.
25. Swap French fries for a side salad or steamed vegetables.
26. Ask for extra veggies on sandwiches.
27. Bring five pieces of fruit to work every Monday for a different snack each day of the week.
28. If you’re unexpectedly out at lunchtime, run by the grocery store instead of the drive-through. Pick up a prepared salad and piece of fruit.
Sip Your Antioxidants
29. Drink brewed black or green tea. Tea is our best source of a class of compounds called catechins, which are potent antioxidants. Green tea contains three times the catechins in black tea. Brew it at home; bottled tea doesn’t offer the same health benefits.
30. Sip on vegetable juice, plain or with some hot sauce for extra kick.
31. Spice up your hot tea with antioxidant-rich ground cloves and cinnamon.
32. Enjoy a glass of red wine. Moderate drinking is linked with reduced rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some scientists credit the antioxidant resveratrol for these positive effects. Moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women, two per day for men.
33. Have a mug of brewed coffee as your early morning or midday energizer. Be careful what you put in it, though. Those lattes and mochas can turn coffee into a sugar and fat fest.
34. Choose one of these antioxidant-rich juices: grape, pomegranate, cranberry, pineapple and orange. Or mix and match them for your own unique blend.
Sweet Treats
35. Skewer some fresh berries, grapes and peach slices for a fun dessert.
36. Top ice cream with berries or pomegranate seeds.
37. Freeze fresh grapes for a delicious, all-natural frozen dessert.
38. For a sophisticated dessert that doubles the antioxidants, dip strawberries, pineapple cubes, and sliced apples and bananas into a dark chocolate fondue.
39. Make ice-pops from any 100% fruit juice.
40. Indulge in small amounts of dark chocolate or cocoa without guilt. Like tea, chocolate and cocoa contain catechins. Research suggests they may help prevent oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease.