Antioxidant Foods vs. Supplements

brain health healthy eating healthy recipes real food sugarfree Jun 05, 2022

Which is better? And why do you want them?

Antioxidants are just that: they fight (anti) oxidation. 

The chemical process of oxidation is like rusting metal. A molecule loses electrons and creates the infamous free radicals.  Oxidation is also the reason why apples, bananas, and avocados go brown when the skin is broken, and they're exposed to air - they're getting oxidized. 

Free radicals in the body cause inflammation and can contribute to diseases like cancers, diabetes, and heart disease (to name a few). So, the antidote to oxidation is the antioxidant. Vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E are examples of antioxidants. So are other compounds in foods like carotenoids and phenols. These compounds sacrifice their electrons to stop the oxidation process; this why squirting some lemon juice on your sliced apples, bananas and avocados slows down the browning process.

But don’t think that all oxidation in the body is bad. It’s not. Your body naturally oxidizes compounds all the time when it’s doing healthy things like metabolizing nutrients or exercising. 

As with many things in life and health, the key is maintaining a good balance. In this case, as the balance between oxidation and antioxidation.

We can throw off that balance with exposure to too much alcohol, smoking, or environmental pollutants. Even over-exercising or too much sun exposure can create too much oxidation.

The best sources of antioxidants to combat this effect are nutritious whole foods, like colourful fresh produce, e.g., blueberries, purple cabbage, etc. In fact, the more colourful and darker the plant is, the higher levels of antioxidants it usually has.  Chemicals that give the plants their deep colours are often the antioxidants themselves.  

CLICK HERE to check out my article on Eating the Rainbow!

Antioxidants in food

Here are a number of antioxidants and the foods they’re found in:

  • Vitamin A - Found in liver, dark leafy greens (e.g., kale), orange fruits and veggies (e.g., mangoes, carrots & squashes)
  • Vitamin C - Found in bell peppers, citrus, berries, and leafy greens
  • Vitamin E - Found in leafy greens, nuts (e.g., walnuts), and seeds (e.g., sunflowers)
  • Carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lycopene, etc.) - Found in tomatoes, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and salmon
  • Phenols - Found in green tea, black tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine, and berries

Blueberries are probably one of the most studied antioxidant foods. They contain a range of phytochemical (i.e., plant chemical) compounds and are very high in anthocyanins (the blue-coloured compound).

The antioxidant capacity can be measured in a laboratory; this is called the "oxygen radical absorption capacity," or "ORAC." And blueberries have one of the highest ORAC levels.

FUN FACT: Some studies estimate that the highest source of antioxidants in the average American is not from berries, it's from coffee! Can you imagine how much healthier people can be if they added a few more servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to their days?

Antioxidant Foods vs. Supplements

While antioxidant supplements have been tested, their results haven’t been as good as many hoped. Compared with eating a nutrient-dense antioxidant-rich colourful array of plants, antioxidants supplements have fallen short.

Many studies of antioxidant supplements haven’t shown any benefit against heart disease, cancer, or other diseases. And these are diseases that are known to be reduced in people who eat a lot of foods that are naturally full of antioxidants.

In fact, too much of any individual antioxidant, like when overdoing supplements, can be harmful. Too much vitamin A is linked to increased risk of hip fractures and prostate cancer. Too much beta-carotene increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Too much vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer, lung infections, heart failure, and even death.

One of the reasons why we think that antioxidant foods work oh-so-much better than antioxidant supplements is because of synergy.   The concept of synergy means that by taking one component out of healthful food (i.e., the antioxidant), it loses the effect it has when combined with all the other healthy components it came with from nature. This is the difference between eating a whole orange and taking a vitamin C supplement. The orange is going to have more than just vitamin C, and many of those compounds will work together for overall health better than just isolating one and having higher-than-normal doses of it.

However please note - just because studies that show the value of supplements haven't been done yet, doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future!

CLICK HERE to read more on choosing supplements wisely.

Conclusion

Oxidation is a naturally occurring chemical reaction in the body, and as long as it’s not out of balance, it’s nothing to be concerned about.  But that means we need to make sure we’re getting lots of antioxidants in our food, including antioxidant vitamins (A, C & E) and other antioxidants like carotenoids and polyphenols. They're highest in colourful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some meats, tea, coffee, and cocoa.

You can’t replace a diet full of nutrient-dense antioxidant-rich whole foods with supplements. So you are better off to be mindful of what you’re eating and include a wide-variety of antioxidant-rich foods.

Not only will they be delicious, but your body and your mind will thank you!

Recipe ~ Antioxidant-rich Rainbow Salad

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ tsp dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 6 cups mixed greens
  • 4 radishes sliced thinly
  • 3 spring onions white and light green parts only, cut into thin strips
  • 1 orange pepper thinly sliced
  • 1 red pepper thinly sliced
  • ½ cucumber thinly sliced
  • ½ cup purple cabbage, finely chopped
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • ½ cup blueberries 
  • 1 peach, cut into slices
  • 1/3 cup kalamata olives, sliced
  • 2 tablespoon each of chopped walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and/or hemp seeds

Directions

  1. Place the olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, garlic powder and sea salt in a small jar and whisk (or shake) together vigourously.  Set aside.
  2. Prepare all the fruits and vegetables. Arrange them on a serving platter or individual plates.
  3. Sprinkle with the nuts and seeds
  4. Drizzle the dressing over the salad
  5. Serve & enjoy!

Tips

  1. Use any greens, veggies and fruits you have on hand, making sure to include a rainbow of colours.
  2. Add your choice of protein to make it a complete meal.

 

References:

https://www.precisionnutrition.com/encyclopedia/food/antioxidants

https://www.precisionnutrition.com/soreness-and-blueberries

https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-coffee

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/supplements-a-scorecard

https://examine.com/nutrition/4-science-based-superfoods-you-should-be-eating/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/family-health-guide/swan-song-for-antioxidant-supplements-the

For more info on this and other natural health topics:

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