"Antioxidants" is one of those wellness buzzwords you see all over social media and on brand packaging, yet it's still a term with an unclear definition for many people, especially those just beginning to establish healthy habits.
Like other, antioxidants do have the power to help you live a healthier life, but it's important to know what the term actually means, the extent of the benefits and where to find these so-called nutritional powerhouses.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are important chemical compounds that may help your body delay or prevent cellular damage. They do this by fighting off free radicals, unstable molecules that your body generates as byproducts of its daily functions, such as turning food into energy.
Free radicals also form in response to environmental stressors on your body, including exposure to sunlight, cigarette smoke and pollutants.
These harmful molecules come about when atoms in your body lose or gain electrons: Free radicals essentially "steal" electrons from nearby atoms. This can cause changes to the structure or function of your cells, which over time can lead to cellular damage. That damage is called "oxidative stress."
Antioxidants are part of your body's natural defense against oxidative stress. They can be human-made or sourced naturally, and they're found in thousands of foods. Your body can make them on its own, too.
There are several families of antioxidants, including vitamins, carotenoids, terpenes, alkaloids, minerals, flavonoids, curcumins, catechins, tannins, anthocyanins, lignans, glucosides and more. That's a lot of letter jumble, but all you really need to know is that there are hundreds -- and possibly thousands -- of types of antioxidants.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, science to date clearly shows that eating a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods can promote good health and assist in the fight against chronic diseases. What's not so clear, the NCCIH reports, is whether that link is attributed directly to the antioxidant content of those foods, or to the vitamin and mineral content or some other component of these foods.
The NCCIH also points out that antioxidanthasn't been linked substantially to better health or disease prevention -- only antioxidant consumption by way of food has.
Either way, a diet rich in antioxidant-rich foods is also a diet high in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, so adding antioxidants to your diet can help in more ways than one – that said, here are five ideas for upping your antioxidant intake.
1. Add leafy greens to sandwiches, scrambles and smoothies
I'm sorry if you're tired of hearing about leafy greens. I don't like them that much, either, but studies consistently show that leafy greens are some of the most nutritious plant foods available to humans. In addition to their high concentration of vitamins and minerals, leafy greens also have a high concentration of antioxidants.
Adding leafy greens to your meals is a surefire way to increase your antioxidant consumption. If you don't like the way they taste, I don't blame you: Try to incorporate them into meals where the taste can be masked by other components of a meal. For instance, add spinach to a burger or breakfast sandwich; blend kale up into a fruit smoothie; or add spring mix to a sweet potato hash.
2. Make your own easy berry syrup
Are you a sweet breakfast kind of person? If so, you have a delicious opportunity to add more antioxidants to your first meal of the day. Pancakes, waffles and French toast go great with a classic maple syrup, but try replacing your usual syrup with a homemade berry syrup for an antioxidant boost.
To make a berry syrup, simply simmer a variety of berries, such as raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, in a skillet with a little bit of water. Stir regularly to prevent sticking or burning, and keep the simmer going until the water evaporates. This'll leave you with a tangy syrupy goodness to drizzle on your breakfast of choice. You can also add honey, cinnamon or stevia to sweeten it up a bit.
3. Sprinkle chopped nuts on everything
Heralded for their healthy omega-3 and omega-6 content, nuts of many varieties also contain impressive antioxidant concentrations. Current evidence shows walnuts as the variety with the highest concentration of antioxidants, with other nuts trailing closely behind.
See, there's a reason nuts make every list of healthy snack ideas on the internet.
To add nuts to your diet, try sprinkling chopped nuts on oatmeal and parfaits. You can also blend nuts into smoothies (provided you have a good blender) or smear nut butter on toast. Or, you can simply snack on a handful of any variety you like.
4. Make things spicy
Like spicy foods? If you tend to sprinkle spices into all of your meals, you may already be consuming more antioxidants than you think. If you tend to cook without seasonings, this may encourage you to spice your meals up: Spices and herbs have "excellent antioxidant activity" and can help your body fight disease. They taste great, too!
Different spices have different antioxidants in them, so there's even more reason to vary the flavors of your meals. For instance, rosemary, sage and oregano are high in phenolic compounds, while basil and dill are high in quercetin.
5. Drink a second cup of coffee (or tea)
Look, I'm the last person to tell you to give up your morning coffee. I'm a self-proclaimed coffee addict, and isn't all that bad for most people anyway (there are always exceptions). Turns out there's a bonus to your daily caffeine fix: Coffee is brimming with antioxidants.
If one of your health goals is to get more antioxidants every day, sipping on a second cup of Joe could help you get there. Coffee is rich in several powerful antioxidants, including polyphenols and hydroxycinnamic acids.
If you do struggle with caffeine -- perhaps you get the jitters, a racing heartbeat or anxiety -- you could try naturally caffeine-free or decaffeinated tea instead. Many tea varieties are also chock-full of antioxidants, with white tea, green tea, black tea and oolong tea being some of the most potent.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.