In the past decade or so, there has been much in the press about the health benefits of foods that had previously been considered treats, such as chocolate, red wine, coffee, and even beer. These foods contain a family of compounds known as antioxidants, found mainly in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Antioxidants protect the body against free radicals, which are a byproduct of normal metabolism, or pollution, smoke, and radiation that can damage cells and tissues, and have been linked to the development and progression of certain diseases. Studies have found lower rates of cancer and heart disease in the regions of the world with diets rich in plant-based foods and high in antioxidants, such as Okinawa, Japan.
Still, there is some confusion about how antioxidants work, making it a challenge to know what to eat. Thousands of compounds in foods can act as antioxidants, and to further complicate matters, it appears that many of these compounds work together to help protect the body.
Supplement companies have cashed in on the antioxidant business by isolating antioxidants from foods and putting them in pills, bars or drinks. With very few exceptions, these supplements fall far short of a diet that will promote health. This is likely because antioxidants work in synergy with each other and other nutrients to protect the body.
Therefore, the best way to ensure that you are getting the widest variety and the greatest amount of antioxidants is to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans. Some tips for including more antioxidants in your diet include:
- Eat fruits and vegetables at each meal. Include them in your cereals, sandwiches, soups or as a side dish.
- Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Put a rainbow on your plate! Include vegetables and fruits of all colors as each color of fruit and vegetable will have different antioxidants.
- Eat a variety of nuts and beans. Choose these plant-based proteins as alternatives to animal based proteins.
- Snack on fruits between meals.
- Drink hot or cold brewed teas, especially green tea. Avoid adding a large amount of sugar to the tea.
Back to my chocolate: Cocoa beans are a source of flavonoid antioxidants. Chocolate is made by adding cream and sugar to cocoa, and as more cream and sugar are added to the cocoa, it moves down the darkness scale towards milk chocolate, and fewer antioxidants. So for the most antioxidants, darker chocolate is better. Add some dried cranberries and almonds for a little bit of variety to your antioxidants dose, and enjoy it with a cup of green tea!
Cathy McIsaac, a registered dietician, is the Manager of Clinical Nutrition at the UVM Medical Center.