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Top 20 antioxidant-rich foods fighting off free radicals

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on May 4, 2020

You know the drill – eat a wide variety of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables for good health. But maybe you’re limited on or you may be “picky,” eating only certain types of produce.  Yet to ward off illnesses or disease, if you had to choose the very best supporting good health, which should you choose?

Understanding the “bad guy” – Free radicals 

To reduce your chance of developing a chronic illness, knowing how to fight off free radicals is a smart strategy. Free radicals are molecules associated with diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and have also been linked to aging. In fact, aging has been defined as a gradual accumulation of free radical damage in the body.

The best way to understand free radicals are to think of them as the natural byproducts of chemical processes. We have various chemical reactions in our cells occurring every day in which free radicals – essentially a waste product – can build up over time harming our cells. There are certain substances in certain foods that can generate free radicals when broken down during digestion.  These foods should be limited and may include fried foods or overly processed foods such as cake mixes or boxed macaroni and cheese. Free radicals are not just limited to food. Alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, and air pollutants are other substance that can lead to free radical damage. 

Time to talk about the “good” guy – Antioxidants

Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Think of antioxidants sort of like the person possessing superpower to mop up and remove all bad things wanting to harm you. They help protect your cells against free radicals wanting to cause cell damage possibly leading to serious illness. 

One important dietary way of protecting your cells from free radical damage, is to feed your body foods rich in antioxidants. Certain foods contain health-benefitting substances like vitamins C and E and carotenoids, helping protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.  

Often these same foods also contain naturally occurring antioxidants such as flavonoids, tannins, phenols and lignans. The best sources of these antioxidants are found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices and even cocoa.  Besides being packed with antioxidants, these foods are also good sources of fiber, have zero cholesterol and are good sources of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. 

Top 20 list of antioxidant-rich foods

Fortunately, there are numerous choices to choose from of antioxidant-rich foods. But for a listing of the very best, here are the top 20 to choose from daily:

  1. Blueberries – This superfood should be a staple in your home you eat every day. Packed with antioxidants, blueberries help protect your skin from premature aging caused by free radicals.  Add to smoothies, cereal, or oatmeal, or enjoy them on their own.
  2. Walnuts – Just one ounce or about 15 halves of walnuts are loaded with antioxidants. Pass on the candied or salty spice mixtures, because on their own, walnuts are a low sodium and a low carb food. Walnuts also have the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids of any other nut good for reducing risk of heart disease.
  3. Brewed Coffee – There’s a lot going on in your morning cup of coffee. Besides perking you up for the day, it also boosts your health and is a rich source of antioxidants.
  4. Blackberries – Of all berries, blackberries are the best for supplying the most antioxidants. One cup provides up to 50 percent of your daily need for vitamin C, an antioxidant with amazing anti-aging benefits for your skin.
  5. Pecans – Perfect for snacking, unsweetened pecans are a great source of antioxidants. One ounce or about 20 pecans provide numerous vitamins and minerals along with a dose of healthy monounsaturated fat.
  6. Strawberries – This beloved fruit practically bursts with antioxidant-rich vitamin C and fiber.  One cup provides 50 percent of vitamin C, excellent for supporting immune system functioning.
  7. Cranberries – Bring out this fruit year-round and not just during the holidays. One cup of whole cranberries is full of disease-fighting and health-boosting antioxidants. Not sure what to do with cranberries? Add them to pancakes, muffins, or quick bread batters or stir a small handful into Greek yogurt for an antioxidant-rich breakfast.
  8. Raspberries – Here’s an incredible super healthy berry to have frequently. Raspberries are an antioxidant-rich food ripe with vitamin C and filled with fiber – one cup contains 8 grams helping you reach your 25-30 grams of fiber needed daily. 
  9. Prunes – Not just for constipation, prunes are a perfect snack food. Plus, prunes are filled with antioxidants and even help improve bone density possibly preventing the brittle bone disease of osteoporosis.
  10. Raisins – Despite their small size, raisins are packed with energy and rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Naturally sweet, they’ll benefit your health by aiding in digestion, boosting iron levels and keeping your bones strong.
  11. Oranges – Along with mangoes, peaches, and watermelon, oranges are rich in beta-cryptoxanthin, an antioxidant that’s one of a pair of compounds that may lower the risk of arthritis. 
  12. Red Grapes – Perfect for snacking, red grapes not only are a good source of antioxidants but also are low in calories and contain no fat.
  13. Cherries – Choose tart Montmorency cherries as your best source of the antioxidant melatonin. Melatonin protects the skin against ultraviolet radiation and helps stimulate new skin-cell growth. Cherries are also packed with vitamin C, needed to build collagen – your skin’s natural “scaffolding” and a wrinkle preventer.
  14. Kale – Rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamins, kale is also a good source of beta-carotene and is the top contributor of both lutein and zeaxanthin, protectors of eye health.
  15. Spinach – Packed with carotenoids, these antioxidants promote healthy eyes by reducing your risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults.
  16. Brussels Sprouts – Maybe not your favorite veggie (or maybe it is!), Brussels sprouts contain a powerful antioxidant compound called isothiocyanates, helping detoxify cancer-causing substances. 
  17. Broccoli – Were you ever told to “eat your broccoli” as a child? Good, because this leafy green is full of cancer-fighting antioxidants. 
  18. Beets – This ruby red beauty is packed with antioxidants helping reduce inflammation and is filled with essential vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium and minerals.
  19. Red Bell Peppers – The beautiful red of red bell peppers means one thing – it’s brimming with 150 percent of your daily need for antioxidant-rich vitamin C, which is good news for helping ward off atherosclerosis that can lead to heart disease.
  20. Onions – A staple food in most homes, onions contain cancer-fighting antioxidants.  It’s best to eat onions raw as cooking onions at high heat, significantly reduces the benefits of phytochemicals that protect against lung and prostate cancer. 

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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