Normal cell function is based on chemical reactions. These reactions throw off spare molecules—usually oxygen—that have lost an electron and are highly unstable. Called free radicals, they raid neighboring molecules for a replacement. This is oxidation; over time it damages cells and sets the stage for disease. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and polyphenols that readily give up an electron to stabilize free radicals before they damage healthy cells. Many people take supplements for protection from free radicals. But the American Heart Association, citing lack of clinical support and even some evidence of harmful effects, recommends eating foods that are high in antioxidants, as a safer and more effective way to stay healthy.
Most fruits are high in vitamin C. Among the fruits highest in antioxidants are prunes, raisins, blueberries (wild blueberries contain even more antioxidants than do cultivated ones), blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges and cherries., The carotenoid lycopene is abundant in red fruits, especially tomatoes; red grapes are also full of flavonoids, a type of polyphenol.
Vitamin C is abundant in many vegetables, as is the antioxidant mineral selenium. The carotenoids beta carotene, lycopene and lutein add pigment, as well as nutrition, to a variety of brightly colored vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A) lists kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli florets, beets, red bell peppers, onions, corn and eggplant as the richest sources.
Whole Grains and Legumes
Dried beans, especially small red beans and kidney beans, are legumes at the top of the list of antioxidant foods, and whole grains rival vegetables in their antioxidant content per gram. These foods offer polyphenols, vitamin E and selenium in abundance. Whole-grain wheat products have the most antioxidants in the cereal group, followed by corn, oats and rice.
Nuts and Spices
The antioxidants vitamin E and selenium are just some of the benefits of this nutrient-packed category. The U.S.D.A puts pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts at the top of the list, along with ground cloves, cinnamon and oregano.
Coffee, Tea and Wine
The good news for anyone who just can’t get started without that morning cup is that both coffee and tea are overflowing with flavonoids. Flavonoids are the same powerful type of polyphenol that gives red wine its antiaging, antioxidant punch.