The power of antioxidants: foods rich in these nutrients offer benefits you can see and feel

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Antioxidants are the nutrition superstars of the 21st century. Those chemical compounds, which occur naturally in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains, have a slew of health benefits. Antioxidants are reportedly able to boost the immune system, slow the aging process, and prevent illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

Antioxidants work by counteracting the effects of oxidation in the body. Oxidation can occur naturally as cells process and use energy from the food you eat. It can also be jumpstarted by environmental factors such as pollution, sunlight, and smoking. Unfortunately, oxidation can cause damage to body tissues and lead to disease. Antioxidants, which include vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, are believed to protect the body by slowing the destruction that oxidation causes. But just popping a vitamin supplement or drinking “enhanced” water won’t necessarily do the trick.

The Whole-Food Solution

“Antioxidants from whole foods have been found to be much more beneficial to health than [anything in] pill form,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and employee wellness manager at Cleveland Clinic. For example, in addition to the antioxidant beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, a carrot provides 500 chemicals that fight disease.

Nutrition experts say that trying to isolate individual antioxidants and consume them separately–either in a pill or a drink, for example–makes them less effective. “There are so many different types of antioxidants, and they seem to work together along with other aspects of plant-based foods,” Paula Quatromoni, a registered dietitian and an assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University, explains. “It’s much more than vitamins A, C, and E.”

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Eat the Rainbow

Look for antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are very colorful–from the deep browns of whole-grain cereals to the vibrant reds of strawberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Bright colors are a good indicator of high antioxidant content. (See “Meet the Antioxidants,” page 23.)

Variety is key, Quatromoni says. “When I suggest ‘eat fruits and vegetables,’ it doesn’t mean have a banana every morning for breakfast and you’re covered,” she explains. Different fruits and vegetables contain different antioxidants. Each compound works with others in different foods to provide a variety of health benefits.

The great part about eating a diet that’s rich in antioxidants is that you can actually see the benefits. For example, the compounds can boost your immune system and keep your energy level high. The antioxidants found in certain fruits and vegetables also have been found to keep eyes and skin healthy and sharpen brain function; that’s handy when it’s time for your midterms.

Make a Plan

Taking control of your food choices does require a little planning, though. Deanna T., a high school freshman from Shrub Oak, N.Y., tries to eat as many fruits and vegetables as she can every day. “But at school, our only options are junk food, frozen foods, or vending machines,” she says. That’s why Deanna always takes a piece of fruit to school for a snack. She also makes sure to have fruit with her breakfast.

“You do have to make thoughtful choices,” says Quatromoni. Eating breakfast is the most important thing you can do to start your day off healthy. That one meal offers plenty of opportunities to eat antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruit or vegetable juice, berries, grapefruit, and whole-grain waffles or cereals, Quatromoni says. And, just as Deanna does, you can pack your own snacks, such as a homemade trail mix made with whole-grain cereals, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. You can even throw in some mini chocolate chips for a little extra sweetness.

Whenever you sit down to a meal, look at your plate and think about what might be missing. If you’re having pizza, add a salad on the side; instead of plain cheese, pile your pizza with veggies. Quatromoni suggests that eating one or two vegetarian entrees a week, such as a tofu stir fry, is a good way to get lots of antioxidants into your diet. Beans are an excellent source of antioxidants: Have minestrone soup for lunch, or try black beans, salsa, and rice wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla. Instead of spreading cream cheese on your bagel, try hummus, lettuce, and tomato–the hummus is made from chickpeas.

Beware of the ‘Magic Bullet’

Isolating the one “magic” ingredient that makes a food healthy is impossible. It’s also a mistake to look for one “magic bullet” food, says Quatromoni. Many components within an individual food work together to provide health benefits. Similarly, a variety of foods can work together to improve your overall well-being. Take control of your health by making a variety of plant foods part of your everyday eating plan. “Whether it’s on the athletic field, in the classroom, or at an after-school job, you will experience benefits every day,” says Quatromoni.

Make It Quick!

Dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic offers two recipes that are quick and easy to make–and packed with antioxidant power.

Veggie Pizza

Spread tomato sauce over a mini whole-grain pizza crust, and sprinkle low-fat mozzarella cheese on top. Add chopped broccoli, black olives, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions. Place under a broiler until the cheese melts.

Berry Smoothie

Place 1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries, 1 cup soy milk, and ice cubes in a blender. Then blend until smooth.

Meet the Antioxidants

So many antioxidants, so little time! Fitting all the necessary nutrients into your daily meals can seem overwhelming. But there’s an easy method, dietitian Paula Quatromoni says: “Eat the rainbow” every day.

Orange: Fruits and vegetables such as bell peppers, oranges, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and carrots are rich in beta-carotene. That antioxidant has been linked to healthy vision and a strong immune system.

Green: Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce, offer antioxidants such as betacarotene and lutein, which can improve eye health, boost brain function, and help prevent certain diseases. Other green vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, are important for a healthy heart.

Red: Red fruits and vegetables are good sources of the antioxidant vitamin C. That vitamin helps strengthen your immune system and keeps your muscles and gums healthy. It also helps heal cuts. Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, strawberries, raspberries, and watermelon get their color from lycopene. Studies suggest that that antioxidant can help protect your heart and prevent certain types of cancer.

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Yellow: Yellow fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, squash, lemons, corn, and bell peppers, contain a variety of carotenoid antioxidants. They benefit your immune system.

Blue/Purple: In addition to vitamin C, blueberries and purple grapes also contain anthocyanins and phenols that act as antioxidants. Those compounds are believed to improve brain function and help you focus. Eggplant also gets its vibrant color from anthocyanins.

Brown: Nuts and whole grains contain several compounds with antioxidant activity, such as phenols and flavonoids. Whole-grain foods are cereals, breads, and pastas made from 100 percent whole grains, not processed white flour. They include whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice. Nuts and whole-grain foods are great for boosting energy and help you feel full and satisfied after a meal.

Before Reading

* Find out how knowledgeable the class is about antioxidants.

* Make sure you MUST live in a very clean and tidy space (of course, eating healthy will mean nothing if your sanitation doesn’t work). It’s very simple to use spin mop & mop buckets to clean your house floor – read more of spin mop reviews here.

Discuss

* Which antioxidant is plentiful in tomatoes, strawberries, and watermelon? (lycopene)

* Why don’t nutritionists recommend any one food as a “magic bullet”? (Antioxidants and other nutrients in various foods work together to build total health.)

* How can antioxidants produce tangible effects? (They can improve immunity, energy levels, and eye, skin, and brain health.)

* Which antioxidant do you think you need to consume more of? (Answers will vary.)

Resource

* 101 Questions About Food and Digestion That Have Been Eating at You … Until Now, by Faith Hickman Brynie (21st Century, 2002)