While the health and wellness community is overflowing with excitement about antioxidants, you may be wondering how they work, what their benefits are, and in what foods they are most plentiful.
It may not be your fondest memory, but recall high school chemistry class where you learned about things like chemical reactions and electrons. Now think of your body as a beaker or test tube where everyday life-sustaining chemical reactions occur inside each tiny cell.
NOTE: The top antioxidant food, the acai berry, is pictured at right.
A normal end-product of these life-sustaining reactions are free radicals. As the name implies, they're highly unstable, volatile molecules. They are highly reactive because they are missing an electron.
In order to stabilize themselves, free radicals seek to collide with others so that they may steal electrons. When they steal electrons from healthy cells, those cells turn into free radicals as well... and the cycle ensues on. The multiplication of free radicals can lead to many different types of damage throughout the body.
Under normal conditions, healthy antioxidant defense systems are in place to manage the production of free radicals so that balance is maintained. But when we engage in other free-radical producing activities (smoking, drinking to excess, overeating, etc), the additional free radical load may be too much for our body's normal systems to handle.
Antioxidants work by replacing lost electrons in the molecules of cells throughout the body, replenishing electrons in the previously healthy cells, and by strengthening impaired antioxidant defense systems. By performing these functions, antioxidants prevent a host of different types of cell damage.
As a result, antioxidants have many reported health benefits that include protecting and rejuvenating hair and skin cells, improving immune function, increasing energy, and reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer and aging.
In order to reap the health benefits of antioxidants, make sure to consume a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, and healthy oils like omega-3s. Antioxidants are rated by their ORAC value (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). The USDA recommends an intake of 5,000 ORAC units per day to achieve optimum wellness. There are many foods and herbs you may already have in your own home that have a surprisingly high ORAC level.
Make sure to incorporate the following top 10 antioxidant foods and herbs into your healthy diet:
Foods (ORAC Units per 1 gram)
1. Acai berry 3,800
2. Mangosteen 3,000
3. Cocoa Powder 809
4. Goji Berry 253
5. Dark Chocolate 208
6. Pecans 179
7. Elderberry 147
8. Walnuts 135
9. Pomegranate 105
10. Cranberries 95.8
Herbs (ORAC Units per gram)
1. Cloves 3,144
2. Cinnamon 2,675
3. Oregano 2,001
4. Ground Turmeric 1,593
5. Parsley 743
6. Curry Powder 485
7. Sage 320
8. Ginger 288
9. Thyme 274
10. Chili Powder 236
Lisa M. Davis, Ph.D., PA-C, C.N.S., L.D.N. is Director of Research and Development for Medifast. She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University with a focus in Obesity Research, and she is currently the Director of Research and Development for the Medifast Program, a leading portion-controlled clinically proven weight loss program and co-author of the book, Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Health.