Antioxidants 101

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Just about everybody has heard the word ‘antioxidant.’ Over the past several years, the benefits of antioxidants have been discussed extensively. But even with all the attention they’ve received, many women aren’t really aware of the physiological reasons why they need them.  

Antioxidants are (natural) chemical compounds that help to reduce or neutralize the harmful effects of oxidative stress. Although oxygen is absolutely indispensable for life (because its essential for creating energy), many health problems stem from its harmful effects on the body. In fact, its continuous actions subject our cells to ongoing damage. This damage is essentially what causes us to age—and suffer from the symptoms of both cellular and muscular inflammation. It can also lower our resistance to everything from colds and flu to cancer and heart disease.

The most common antioxidants are beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E. While the human body naturally produces some of its own antioxidants, it’s a process that isn’t 100% effective. To complicate matters, the body’s ability to manufacture antioxidants declines with age.

Unfortunately, most antioxidant supplements don’t really help.  An overwhelming amount of research shows that antioxidant-rich foods—not synthetic, antioxidant supplements—are most effective at boosting the body’s antioxidant levels. This is because colorful, whole foods contain an unmatched array of thousands of antioxidant factors and co-factors (nutrients that speed and increase the absorption of other nutrients) working together in unison. A typical antioxidant supplement contains only a few isolated and synthetic copies of their naturally occurring counterparts.  

In nature, antioxidants (and foods) come in a huge variety of colors. Eating for color is one of the best ways to obtain the broadest possible range of antioxidants from the foods you eat.

While chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins are the major types of colors or pigments, there are a number of other phytochemicals that are just as effective in promoting health and protecting the body against its own oxidative processes and promoting optimal health and well-being. Here's a look at the rainbow of antioxidants found naturally in fresh fruits and vegetables:

Green vegetables make up a big part of the produce section, and they should also make up a substantial part of your diet. The green color comes from chlorophyll, a pigment that transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen—and food for the plant. Chlorophyll has the power to regenerate our bodies at the molecular and cellular level and is known to help fight infection, heal wounds, and promote the health of the circulatory, digestive, and immune systems. Chlorophyll hides the red, orange and yellow pigments in plants. When photosynthesis comes to a halt and the green fades away, we are left with a colorful, autumn foliage display.

From spinach, green grapes, asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, beet greens, brussels sprouts and even sea vegetables like kelp, green fruits and vegetables nourish your body with all sorts of healthy substances.

Interestingly, two of nature’s most powerful antioxidants are coffee and cocoa beans. Although they appear brown prior to drying and roasting, they are green and full of rich antioxidant power.

Red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids. Most of us are familiar with beta-carotene—the orange pigment found in carrots that our bodies use to make vitamin A. This well-known antioxidant helps protect against eye disease and some forms of cancer; it strengthens the immune system and lowers heart disease risk. But beta-carotene is just one of some fifty carotenoids with similar functions in the body. Other well-studied carotenoids are lycopene and lutein. Orange and yellow fruits that contain large amounts of carotenoids include mangoes, nectarines, oranges, lemons, peaches, and grapefruit. When it comes to orange and yellow vegetables, choose carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash

Red fruits and vegetables are colored by natural plant pigments known as lycopene or anthocyanins. Strawberries, raspberries, cherries, red grapes, apples, pomegranates, tomatoes, red bell peppers, and beets are some tasty options to choose from.

Some red foods contain the other major antioxidant type, anthocyanins, which are expressed as blue and purple. Fresh vegetables and fruits that are blue or purple may not be as common as those in shades of green or red, but they offer some terrific antioxidant benefits. Incorporate some anthocyanins into your diet by eating blueberries (the king of blue foods), concord grapes, dried plums, purple cabbage, and eggplant.

The lesser known and recognized white fruits and vegetables are colored by pigments called anthoxanthins. They contain health-promoting chemicals such as allicin, which may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce risk of stomach cancer and heart disease. The more popular members of the white group include bananas and potatoes, which are both a good source of the mineral potassium, too. Others include cauliflower, ginger, jicama, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, and turnips.

Also representing a full spectrum of colors (and antioxidants) are teas such as holy basil, rooibos, yerba mate, green, white and black; and herbs such as rosemary, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, oregano leaf, and turmeric.

Because optimal antioxidant protection involves a team effort, we need to consume the tens of thousands of plant-based nutrients our bodies have naturally evolved to use. Taking an isolated antioxidant (natural or synthetic) like vitamin C, E, or beta carotene will simply not be effective in fighting free radical damage and can create an unintended nutrient imbalance. The only real way to pump up your antioxidant protection is by dramatically increasing your intake of colorful, whole foods.

I am curious—how many different colors of fruits and vegetables do you eat during the course of a typical day? You probably haven’t counted. But if you decide to, I’d love to read about your results in the comment section below!