Antioxidants: What They Are & How to Get More of Them!
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
By: Sarah Martel, BASc, MHSc(c) & Aja Gyimah, MHSc, RD
As we start to age, we begin thinking about chronic diseases and what we can do to reduce our risk. Although a healthy diet is only one factor in chronic disease prevention, it can certainly play an important role. There’s a reason why I constantly stress the importance of vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruits. Aside from the high fibre content, these foods contain plenty of antioxidants that can play a role in preventing/managing chronic disease.
Antioxidants are a type of nutrient that help protect our cells from free radical damage (1). Free radicals are molecules that are released from normal body processes like exercising and digesting food, but they also come from harmful pollutants and cigarette smoke (1). Over time, cell damage can lead to common diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and thus a diet rich in antioxidants helps to reduce our risk of developing these diseases (2).
Some common antioxidants naturally found in food are Vitamin C, Vitamin E, the mineral Selenium, as well as the plant chemicals, carotenoids and flavonoids (2). Here are some food sources of each antioxidant:
Vitamin C: citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi, guava, papaya, leafy green vegetables
Vitamin E: vegetable oils, nuts and nut butters (especially almond and peanut), sunflower seeds, avocado, wheat germ, and fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna
Selenium: brazil nuts, beans, soy beans, fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, wheat bran and oat bran
Carotenoids (often found in yellow, orange or red coloured foods): carrots, tomatoes, sweet potato, squash, watermelon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, broccoli, kale and spinach
Flavonoids (often found in yellow or blue coloured foods): onions, apples, celery, soy products, whole grain wheat, legumes, blueberries, blackberries, tea and even chocolate
As you can see some foods like dark leafy greens, whole grains and legumes contain a combination of two or more types of antioxidants. They are also all plant-based foods, which everyone should be having more of in their diet! Below are some plant-based antioxidant-rich food combinations to help you protect your health:
Harvest salad with kale, roasted chickpeas, roasted squash, sunflower seeds and an olive oil based dressing
Smashed avocado and smashed white kidney beans on whole grain bread with cherry tomatoes and balsamic glaze
Thai peanut noodles with tofu, broccoli, bell peppers, onions and carrots* (Sarah has a great recipe on her IG, check it out here)
Sweet potato and black bean chilli (this 5-ingredient recipe is delicious!)
*Steaming or microwaving vegetables can be a great time saver for stir fries, but remember to do so with only a small amount of water in order to preserve their antioxidant content!
Natural peanut butter on whole grain bread with smashed blackberries (think DIY version of PB&J)
Tropical smoothie with frozen papaya, strawberries, mango, ice and a splash of orange juice
Trail mix with brazil nuts, almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried blueberries and chocolate chunks
Green tea with a blueberry bran muffin (this vegan recipe is super easy & tasty)
Lastly, with pharmacies and health food store shelves lined with antioxidant supplements, it may be tempting to just take those. However, many antioxidant supplements come in much higher doses than needed, and can actually be harmful to your health (1, 2). Some antioxidants in supplement form can interfere with your diet, and medications or supplements that you already take (1). Make sure to speak to your doctor or registered dietitian before starting any supplements, and remember that when it comes to antioxidants; food is best!
Health Link BC. (2018). Antioxidants and Your Diet. Retrieved from: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/hlbc/files/healthyeating/pdf/antioxidants-and-your-diet.pdf
Unlock Food. (2019). What You Need to Know About Antioxidants. Retrieved from: https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-you-need-to-know-about-antioxidants.aspx