The importance of a strong immune system is becoming increasingly apparent. How to achieve this shield of armor is not so evident. One of the most effective ways to protect your immune system is to supply your body with plenty of antioxidants. Now, before you go running to the pharmacy to stock up on some fizzy orange seltzer tabs, Vitamin C is just one of the thousands of known antioxidants. So, let’s discuss how these immune-boosting powerhouses work and the best way to get your antioxidants on.
Why Do Antioxidants Matter?
Antioxidants are essential for keeping our skin vibrant, cells healthy, and body moving. However, their biggest claim to fame is that they help fight off free radicals. These are rogue electrons that run amok in the system. Having free radicals on the loose can be the precursor for many illnesses, including cancer.
Free radicals happen due to oxidative stress. As ironic as it might be, the very thing that gives us life (oxygen) can also slowly destroy us. Over time, oxygen intake chips away at healthy atoms, splitting them into separate electrons.
These electrons are now free to interact with other parts of the body, which can become life-threatening. That’s why we need antioxidants to help fight off these free radicals.
Which Foods Have the Most Antioxidants?
Without a doubt, fruits and vegetables are the richest sources of antioxidants. Unfortunately, just one out of ten adultsget the daily recommended intake of these foods. So, many of us are not giving our immune system adequate protection.
Even worse, we don’t get enough sources of antioxidants. We tend to stock up on one particular fruit or eat a couple of different vegetables each week. By limiting your options, you deny yourself a spectrum of nutrients.
The colors we see on the flesh of foods are caused by pigments. These pigments are antioxidants. So, each color you consume provides your body with a nutrition profile that a food of another color can’t give.
You must look at your antioxidants like a team. Each player has their own specialties. Sure, others can pick up some slack, but they’ll never replace their teammate. To get the most out of the team, you want everyone there, doing what they do best. That’s why it’s important you eat the color spectrum of fruits and vegetables.
Red foods get their vibrant hue from a compound called lycopene. Experts believe that this pigment is the most potent of the bunch. In fact, one study found that lutein restored damaged DNA two times faster than beta-carotene.
Foods most abundant in lycopene include:
- Red Cabbage
Example: Ferment the red cabbage to make kimchi. This spicy Korean superfood is rich in probiotics. It will help improve the good bacteria in your gut that will help stop the growth of viruses and harmful bacteria.
Foods get their orange color from alpha-carotene and beta-carotene pigments. These antioxidants are the precursors to Vitamin A. Vitamin A plays a significant role in maintaining our eye health, skin health, and promoting healthy cells.
Some of the richest food sources of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene include:
- Sweet Potatoes
Example: Start using pumpkin puree as a thickening agent when you’re baking. Cut up some sweet potatoes to make fries instead of white potatoes. Slice up a cantaloupe and have that for a couple of days instead of your usual apple.
Two predominant antioxidants are responsible for yellow-skinned foods -- lutein and zeaxanthin. These molecules are essential for eye health, especially for those who work at a screen all day. Research shows that lutein and zeaxanthin reduce damage to the retina caused by blue light!
Yellow foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin include:
- Mustard Greens
Example: Up your yellow food game and get your turmeric on. This root is rich in a compound known as curcumin. Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory and can help support joint health. Up your absorption rate of curcumin 2,000% by consuming it with black pepper!
Sorry, kids. Mom’s right. You must eat your greens. They’re rich in Vitamin K and B-Vitamins. These essential vitals are crucial for blood cell production and DNA replication. So, you definitely want a lot of these antioxidants in your diet.
Be sure to eat up on:
- Brussels Sprouts
Example: Get creative with your greens. Turn your wheat tortilla wrap into a collard green wrap. Use more fresh herbs while you cook. Whip up some guac with jalapeños, cilantro, and basil. There are many delicious ways to get your greens in. Broccoli’s not bad, too!
Blue and violet foods kind of flow along the same spectrum, so we're lumping them together. Both of these colored foods are rich in anthocyanins. Violet and blue foods are excellent for brain health.
One study involving purple sweet potatoes found that anthocyanins not only fought off free radicals, but preserved healthy fats in the brain. By having these tissues present, it stops our brain from atrophying and developing into dementia.
Some of the best sources of anthocyanins include:
- Blue Corn
Example: If you love smoothies, fill them up with dark berries. Make a delicious glaze with balsamic vinegar and freshly-squeezed orange juice to pour over a candied beets side dish. Try Taco Tuesday with blue corn tortillas instead of soft tacos.
White encompasses all the colors of the rainbow. These colored foods also encompass a ton of antioxidant benefits. For one, they’re high in quercetin. This molecule not only fights free radicals, but might improve respiratory issues.
You can also find plenty of white foods that contain kaempferol. This antioxidant is crucial for heart health. It not only improves blood circulation, but helps balance cholesterol levels.
Antioxidant-rich white foods include:
Example: Use onion and garlic to flavor your foods. Have mushrooms be your meat substitute on Meatless Mondays. Start your day off with steel-cut oats, bananas, and coconut shavings. Throw in some cacao nibs for good measure!