You’ve probably heard of antioxidants. You may have a vague idea that they’re good for your body and your skin. But do you really understand them? Here’s how antioxidants work, and five foods that are teeming with this vital substance.
What Are Antioxidants, Exactly?
Antioxidants are molecules that protect your cells from damage. They’re true cell superheroes. But why would your cells become damaged in the first place? That’s where the bad guys come in–free radicals. The atoms that make up your cells normally contain pairs of electrons. But sometimes, due to oxidative stress, the atom splits, and the electrons are no longer paired. This forms a free radical. Unhealthy habits are one cause of oxidative stress, including eating a poor diet, not exercising, smoking tobacco, and not getting enough sleep.
Free radicals are trying to find an electron to pair with–and they can steal one from your healthy cells. This leads to cell damage. Antioxidants sweep in and give an electron to the free radicals. Then, free radical damage is neutralized.
Free radicals have been associated with cell aging and with diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidant-containing foods may help protect your cells from free radical damage.
Here are five of the best antioxidant foods to eat for better health.
A 2017 study from Penn State found that mushrooms are high in two specific types of antioxidants–ergothioneine and glutathione. The study also found that the amounts of these antioxidants varied according to mushroom variety. All of the mushrooms tested contained both antioxidants, though the highest levels were found in wild porcini mushrooms. The study also found that it doesn’t matter if you cook them or not–mushroom antioxidant levels stayed the same regardless of heating.
A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that berries are some of the best dietary sources of antioxidants. Berries are high in ascorbic acid, the chemical name for vitamin C. Which types of berries are best? The study listed blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries.
3. Green Tea
More than any other type of tea, green tea is full of antioxidants called flavonoids. Research shows that green tea may be able to protect your cells from cancer and cardiovascular disease. A 2008 study published in the journal of the American Cancer Society found that consuming flavonoids daily protected smokers from getting lung cancer. A 2006 Japanese study also found that people who drank green tea regularly were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Although they are actually seeds, lentils are members of the legume family, like beans. A 2014 study published in the journal Food Chemistry examined the antioxidant content of 10 legumes. Researchers found that lentils had the highest concentration of antioxidants of the legumes studied. Lentils get their antioxidants from vitamins A and C.
When you think about antioxidants, you might not think about spices. But many spices are high in antioxidants–and cloves top the list. Cloves are a staple spice for baked goods and Mediterranean cuisine. A 2010 study published in the Flavour and Fragrance Journal found that cloves had the highest level of phenolic compounds of five Mediterranean spices tested.
For better health, aim to eat at least one of these antioxidant-rich foods each day. Or combine them in meals to help to fight free radicals. Your body–and your cells–will thank you.