My Favourite Antioxidant Foods for FallBryce Wylde October 1, 2010
If I gave you my best advice on eating healthy, it would incorporate a diet full of foods that would help you lose weight, keep fat off, hold inflammation at bay, keep blood sugar balanced, keep muscle on, empower your immune system, and supply you with a ton of antioxidants. Sound too good to be true? Keep one thing in mind – ORAC value – and you’ll accomplish optimal health.
In 2004, Franco and colleagues published a study in the British Medical Journal showing that combining a lot of heart-friendly substances into something they called a “polymeal,” which included wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruits, vegetables, almonds and garlic – was safer, cheaper, tastier, and possibly more effective than the “polypill” method of treating heart disease with blood pressure medication, statins, water pills and aspirins. Eating according to the ‘polymeal plan’ reduced cardiovascular disease by 76% in the study group. Following the plan, a male would perhaps increase his life expectancy by 6.6 years and thwart the onset of heart disease by 9 years; the corresponding statistics for women were 4.8 and 8.1 years respectively. The researchers concluded that the ‘polymeal’ was an effective, non-pharmacological, safe, cheap and tasty alternative that would reduce cardiovascular morbidity and increase life expectancy.
Effectiveness of the “polymeal” diet is largely due to the high amount of antioxidants found in this diet and their ability to clean up the mess from free radicals that wreak havoc in our bodies and cause disease. Free radicals are those dangerous little molecules that circulate in our system wreaking havoc and causing heart disease, common colds and ‘flu, and genetic mutations to name a few. Nature has forever supplied us with and abundance of antioxidants. They’re right there in our food – the right food, that is. Through the study of antioxidants and nutrition, we know that food carries far more than just calories, vitamins and minerals. Many fruits and vegetables have immune-enhancing bioflavonoids, anti-inflammatory constituents, and strong cancer-fighting properties.
Nutritional science has advanced beyond the familiar advice to avoid too many saturated fats, get lots of fibre, maintain a good level of hydration, keep sugar low and eat more fruits and vegetables. Studies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston suggest that consuming fruits and vegetables with a high antioxidant value may help slow the aging process in both body and brain. Many other research projects now underway also suggest we should eat foods that have the highest oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC value). According to the latest scientific consensus, our best nutritional routine is based on foods that have the strongest antioxidant power; have beneficial, gene-modifying capacity; lower inflammation; enhance immune responses in the body; detoxify free radicals and prevent the onset of disease. ORAC foods are therapeutic foods as opposed to simply nutritionally fulfilling foods.
Oxygen radical absorption capacity is a helpful concept when we want to understand exactly which foods have the highest antioxidant power. The ORAC value measures food’s ability to give us what we need to mitigate disease-causing free radical damage.
As a rule of thumb, vibrantly coloured fruits and vegetables (red, orange, yellow and purple) contain the highest amounts of antioxidants. But they’re far from the only sources. Organic chocolate, red wine and coffee are loaded with these radical fighters – though we need to consume such foods in moderation because, needless to say, a diet high in fat, alcohol or caffeine presents risks of other sorts. But we also don’t want to miss their antioxidant benefits entirely and we certainly want to pay our respects to the “Come on! Live a little!” principle.
Let us consider the “French Paradox” – the low incidence of heart disease amongst a Mediterranean population that consumes fatty foods such as red meat and cheeses along with regular amounts of red wine and coffee – and the scientific evidence that blood antioxidant levels were higher in healthy volunteers who drank red wine than in those who did not.
In July 2006, a collaboration of Norwegian and U.S. scientists, led by Nebte Halvorsen, produced the largest ranking of antioxidant foods to date: over a thousand foods were studied, including processed foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. Blackberries are at the top of their list. The other antioxidant foods that make their top ten are walnuts, strawberries, artichokes, cranberries, coffee, raspberries, pecans, blueberries and cloves.
THE ORAC SUPERHEROES
All foods have an ORAC value. As we adapt to this new knowledge, we shouldn’t purchase a food simply because its ORAC value is listed on the package. We’ll need to know whether it really has a high ORAC value. Over time, you’ll gain the experience needed to evaluate foods for their ORAC value by comparing them with what I like to call the ORAC superheroes. Eventually we’ll hear people saying, “That cereal has the ORAC value of half a cup of blueberries” or “That pasta sauce has the ORAC value of a glass of red wine.” Fat, sugar and carbohydrate content are all important to acknowledge, of course, but once we accept that the most important consideration is ORAC value, our diet will improve drastically.
Fruits: Berries and Red Grapes
Fruits provide energy at a slower rate than pure sugar, are packed with vitamins and fibre, and beyond that, they’re so tasty that junk food manufacturers try to imitate them. But as with all foods, the ORAC value of fruit is of prime importance. Although almost all fruit has a respectable ORAC value; the superheroes are berries and grapes. Don’t let the fragile texture and easy spoiling of a berry fool you. In the world of ORAC value they are at the top of the list. Few fruits have the delightfully delicate allure or the nutrients of berries. Loaded with free radical neutralizers (cancer protectors), blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are rich in a special class of antioxidant called procyanidins that can help prevent cancer and heart disease and seem to be able to delay the onset of age-related loss of cognitive function. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries also contain ellagic acid, a plant compound that combats carcinogens.
This is probably my favourite piece of advice in this entire article. One glass of organic red wine (preferably Cabernet because of the higher amount ORAC value and the procyanidin content) per day for women and two for men is ideal. By glass, I mean no more than 5 – 10 oz. Lots of studies suggest that red wine can keep you smarter, maintain a healthy and strong heart, and protect your blood vessels from plaque development. The potent antioxidant substances resveratrol and quercetin, found in red grapes, also protect your heart against damaging free radicals. But the amount of resveratrol in red wine isn’t enough; to reap resveratrol’s benefits, you’ll need the supplement form.
Red wine offers many other health benefits, including a reduction in platelet aggregation (blood stickiness) and an improvement in vasodilatory function that helps blood vessels to remain open and flexible all the way to the brain. Resveratrol in the high amounts found in supplements can protect against cancer and reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases, gastric ulcers, stroke and even osteoporosis. The antioxidant value of red grape juice in its pure form is nearly as good for you as red wine.
Note: Consuming more than the recommended amount of one to two glasses of wine results in the creation of free radicals. Damage to your liver and arteries is the result.
Broccoli – and other ‘Brassica’ vegetables such as kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts can help prevent cancer and ward off heart disease. Also known as cruciferous vegetables, this group contains a compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C) – a potent antioxidant that breaks down estrogen in the body. I3C reduces the risk of breast cancer and other estrogen-sensitive cancers such as cancer of the ovaries and cervix. These vegetables contain other protective antioxidants such as beta-carotene, which also helps prevent cancer and heart disease. Studies have shown that broccoli can help fight cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition. There is much talk these days about immunization against cervical dysplasia that is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). I favour a daily plate of broccoli, kale and mustard greens rather than adding yet another vaccine to the ever-growing list administered to our preteen population.
Spinach – doesn’t just give Popeye stronger forearms; it offers significant protection for our vision. Lutein is the antioxidant found in spinach and a crucial nutrient for the health of the human eye. Studies have demonstrated that people who eat spinach are less likely to develop cataracts and macular degeneration. Lutein protects your retina (the visual receptor at the back of the eye) from sunlight-caused free radicals. (Ed note: The nutrients in cooked spinach are more bioavailable than in raw spinach.)
Garlic – Some call garlic a panacea or cure-all because it is one of the world’s oldest known medicinal herbs. A sulphur compound is responsible for both garlic’s pungent odour and the healing benefits. Garlic is packed with antioxidants to help fend off cancer, heart disease, and the effects of aging. It fights free radicals, lowers cholesterol, works to reduce blood pressure, and keeps our blood from clotting. Besides warding off Dracula on Hallowe’en, garlic’s efficacy in treating yeast infections is also well known!
Tomatoes – Regular consumption of tomatoes has been associated with decreased risk of chronic degenerative diseases. Tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene. It’s actually more powerful than beta-carotene. Those with sensitivities to the nightshade family of vegetables have to be careful with tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, chilies and cayenne pepper, and eggplant because these foods can contribute to arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. But for most of us, tomatoes are on the list of superhero foods for good reason: they can ward off certain kinds of cancer. They’re especially well known for protection of the prostate gland. Recent studies have shown that men who eat the equivalent of one can of tomato paste daily have significantly lower rates of prostate cancer. Other studies have suggested that lycopene may help prevent lung, colon and breast cancers. Tomatoes also protect the eyes against macular degeneration and cataracts, and support mental function and successful aging. (Note: Heating tomatoes allows more desirable antioxidants to be available to the body, making tomato sauce the best form to consume. Cooking also lowers the acidity level.)
Carrots – are loaded with a potent antioxidant called beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A). But be careful about eating too many; they pack a sugar wallop and are high on the glycemic index (GI). (This index ranks carbs based on their effects on glucose levels in the blood. Carbohydrates with lower GI ratings are digested more slowly, so more nutrition is extracted from them, lower insulin levels are required, and less sugar finds its way to the blood. This in turn keeps inflammation potential low, lowering the overall amount of circulating free radicals.)
High levels of beta-carotene can also be found in beets, sweet potatoes and winter squash (also high GI veggies). Beta-carotene and other carotenoids have been carefully studied and do provide protection against cancer and heart disease and can help in treatment of arthritis. Lightly steaming carrots or including them in a pasta sauce or soup helps the body access their carotenoid antioxidants.
The Humble Seed
These include beans, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes – those little kernels of life that so often fail to get the acclaim they deserve. You will benefit by getting into the habit of packing a few baggies of these for the family when out and about this autumn. Along with a cold drink of water, they are a perfect recharge between meals and pack a lot of trace minerals and essential fatty acids. I could easily put seeds at the top of the ORAC list – small red beans are antioxidant superheroes. But do you realize that these country cousins have city cousins that are delicious and exciting? And here’s the shocker: delicious and exciting doesn’t mean bad for you. So I’m going to start with a wonderful food that, most of the time, we hardly remember was once a bean.
Chocolate: The Luscious Bean – The cacao “bean” is the seed of the cacao tree, a native of South America. The bean itself is bitter, but when processed as chocolate, the result is delicious. Research has demonstrated that the antioxidants in cacao are easily absorbed and ever so useful to our body. Cornell University food scientists found that cocoa powder has nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine and up to three times what is found in green tea. Since I reviewed this research a few years back, a night rarely goes by that I don’t have a glass of red wine with a velvety piece of chocolate with 90% cacao content.
The findings on chocolate were published in an article in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. The Cornell University researchers who authored the paper showed chocolate to have a high content of antioxidant compounds called phenolic phytochemicals, or flavonoids. They discovered huge amounts of antioxidants in a single serving of cocoa.
But don’t start including average milk chocolate in your diet. Chocolate manufacturers have worked for decades to remove the bitter antioxidants and create a candy taste by adding milk and cream for smoothness and a whack of sugar for sweetness. The result, I’m afraid, is a food item that causes heart disease and free radicals instead of protecting us from them. My prescription is two small squares a day of organic dark chocolate containing 70% or more cacao. This kind of chocolate, like coffee, is deliciously bitter.
Coffee: The Magic Bean – Many health practitioners advocate no coffee, but in my opinion this advice is wrong. Coffee has received some negative press in the past, primarily because of its well-known jangly effects when taken to excess. But organic coffee in small amounts is good for you. Beyond adding a jolt of mental alertness, coffee has a significant antioxidant effect, and may have an inverse association with the risk of type 2 diabetes. Other research suggests that people from families prone to Parkinson’s disease who drink coffee are less likely to develop the disease. This is a further clue as to how diet works with genes to cause disease. Dr. William Scott of the University of Miami School of Medicine, who has carried out some of the most important research in this area, suggests that the findings point clearly to dopamine, one of the feel-good chemicals in the brain, which falls to low levels in Parkinson’s sufferers. The researchers can’t yet say with certainty what mechanism can be attributed to coffee. I suspect the positive effects will be traced to antioxidant protection, since Parkinson’s disease is caused when the brain cells that produce dopamine die, largely as a result of attack by free radicals, in some cases caused by pesticides that are known to be strongly linked with disease risk. The disease is progressive, affecting about 1% of people older than sixty-five.
Coffee’s protective antioxidant effects are good news for coffee lovers, especially because, besides enhancing blood flow to the head, some studies have linked its consumption to possible protection against liver and colon cancer as well as type 2 diabetes. According to a study by researchers at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source. It would be much better if we got our antioxidants from fruits and vegetables. Although coffee is an antioxidant superhero, it is not the caffeine that adds the antioxidant properties. Decaf delivers them in full measure but avoids the potential elevation in blood pressure and other unwanted side effects from the standard cup o’ joe.
I recommend one daily cup of black, organic coffee (a half-and-half mixture of Swiss water-decaffeinated beans and caffeinated) best consumed before noon. If you’re not a coffee drinker to begin with and don’t really like the taste, try organic decaf green tea instead.
Small Red Beans – have incredible ORAC value. Red beans look like kidney beans. They are the same colour and shape except that the red bean is slightly smaller. It is also known as the Mexican red bean, but is grown in many parts of North America. Although red beans come near the top of the ORAC list, we don’t need to eat bowls of dried small red beans every day – that might lose us friends! Instead, remember to mix them into salads, sauces, soups, and baked goods (beans in baked goods add great texture and nutritional value and don’t affect the flavour of the recipe).We need to eat a wide variety of antioxidant-rich foods to ensure an adequate intake of all nutrients.
Whole Grains – Grains are seeds too, and wheat isn’t the only grain on the planet. Millet, quinoa, kasha and amaranth grains are creating a revolution in our food tastes. Our morning bowl of cereal is a potent source of phytochemicals as long as it’s the whole-grain variety. “Whole grain” doesn’t have to mean “whole wheat,” nor does it necessarily mean a dark brown piece of bread. It means that we’re cooking (often boiling) whole grains either on their own as a side dish or in combination for cereal, or perhaps mixing them into soups or making casseroles. The vitamin E in grains is a potent antioxidant that plays a role in preventing cancer, especially prostate cancer. Other studies have found that vitamin E can boost immunity, slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, treat and possibly prevent arthritis, prevent sunburn and treat male infertility. Grains are also rich in phytic acid, known as IP-6, a potent antioxidant that can help protect against breast, colon and liver cancers. My recommendation is no less than two cups per day of high fibre, multinutritional, life-sustaining grains.
Nuts and Other Seeds – Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary nutrients, not true antioxidants, but omega-3 fish oil supplements often require antioxidants in them as preservatives to prevent them from going rancid. Omega-3s are found in fish, nuts, seeds, algae and certain animal products. Many studies have demonstrated that they’re great for your heart and brain function. Nuts and seeds have recently gained in popularity because of their omega-3 content. But nuts and seeds have great antioxidant power as well, at least enough to make it onto my list of antioxidant superheroes. Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and almonds top the nut list for their nutritional benefits and antioxidant power. Where seeds are concerned, I like the many benefits that sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds have to offer, including their high calcium and zinc content. I recommend no more but no less than the equivalent of one handful of fresh (non-rancid) unsalted, un-roasted nuts and seeds, five times a week.
(Remember that mixing a serving of grains together with a serving of beans or other legumes gives your diet a hundred per cent protein.)
Herbs and Spices
U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists recently carried out a study of twenty-seven culinary and twelve medicinal herbs. It revealed that many popular herbs are a great source of natural antioxidants. In fact, the total phenolic content (the antioxidant ingredient) of many herbs in the study is higher than those reported for berries, fruits and vegetables. Although we would have to eat an awful lot of herbs to get the equivalent total amount of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, supplementing an otherwise balanced diet with herbs appears to be highly beneficial to our health.
You may not think of it this way, but tea is among the world’s most popular herbs. It may also be one of the best ways to prevent a number of degenerative diseases. Tea, the most frequently consumed beverage in the world, has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and other diseases. It was originally thought that green tea had more antioxidants than black tea, but recent studies suggest that they’re equally beneficial. Some late breaking news: squeeze half a lemon into your green tea (cold or hot) to increase and preserve the antioxidant effects of the tea’s catechins (the antioxidant ingredient) and make them more easily absorbed by the body.
IN CONCLUSION…WHAT YOU SHOULD EAT
The Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists reported that sales of products carrying an antioxidant claim jumped nearly 20 per cent last year. One out of every 4 consumers claims to eat fruits or vegetables to prevent disease, 1 in 3 eats them to feel healthy, and nearly 9 of 10 eat them to stay healthy. But we’re still not eating enough of these disease-fighting foods. And there’s no doubt we need more specific advice.
Though Canada is sometimes ahead of the United States in terms of health-related issues, this is not true when it comes to nutrition. The new Canadian Food Guide teaches us that vegetables and fruit make up the largest arc of Canada’s Food Guide “rainbow” and suggests that a healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer. This is true. It also suggests that eating lots of vegetables and fruit regularly may lower your risk of heart disease. This is also true. But it suggests that eating at least one serving of vegetables or fruit at every meal and as a snack provides us with the amount of vegetables and fruit we need each day. Assuming three meals per day and two snacks, that amounts to five servings a day.
But we now know that, as a result of the bombardment of toxins in our environment, our general lack of exercise, and the overwhelming availability of fast food, five servings fall far short of our requirements for optimal health!
What are the requirements then? More than most of us consume, I’m afraid. If you don’t count potatoes, the average person gets a total of just three servings of fruits and vegetables a day. This fall, it is time to make a change! The latest dietary guidelines call for up to thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables a day. An average male, who needs about 2,000 calories a day to maintain his weight and health, requires a minimum of nine servings, or more than four cups per day.
One cup of fruit is equal to one of the following:
1 medium grapefruit
1 large banana
1 small apple
1 medium pear
1 small wedge of watermelon
1 large orange
3 medium plums
8 large strawberries
One cup of vegetables/salad is equal to one of the following:
1 large bell pepper
2 large celery stalks
1 medium potato (preferably baked, not fried)
1 cup of cooked or 2 cups of raw greens (spinach, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens)
1 large sweet potato
12 baby carrots (or 2 medium carrots)
10 broccoli or cauliflower florets
1 cup of green beans
2 cups of lettuce (counts as 1 cup of vegetables)
If we attempt to follow the thirteen-servings-a-day recommendation, we must be careful. Thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables that include loads of nuts and berries may contain about 16,000 ORAC units. On the other hand, if these servings are mostly salads made from iceberg lettuce, which has little to no ORAC value, they may account for less than 500 ORAC units. The latter scenario doesn’t really satisfy our antioxidant needs. Fresh fruits have on average about four times higher ORAC value than fresh vegetables. Everything depends on our choices. Make the better choices.
Now that you know what to eat everyday, I’ll leave you with a summary of what to avoid (at all costs) in order to keep your new-found health!
WHAT WE SHOULD NOT EAT – THE TOP 10 WORST LIST
Unfortunately, the list of things we should eat is much shorter than the list of things we need to avoid. This is an incomplete list (as it doesn’t contain all of the chemicals, food colouring, flavouring, and preservatives, etc., you need to avoid), but it is a good start.
Here’s a worst 10 list.
1. Fast food. You don’t need me to go into more detail about fast foods. Avoid them.
2. Hydrogenated fats, as we all know by now, must be avoided because they cause heart disease. They’ve been used for years in snack foods, bakery items, and margarine. Avoid buying cookies, crackers, baked goods or anything else that has hydrogenated oil or trans-fats in the ingredient list.
3. Olestra is a synthetic fat used to make non-fat potato chips and other snacks. You’d think, with all the bad rap fat has garnered, a non-fat fat would be great. But Olestra has been shown to bind with fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K and carotenoids – our invaluable antioxidant nutrients – and to eliminate them from the system. Never mind the fact that Olestra causes stomach upset and other digestive problems, its consumption encourages people to skip over fruits and vegetables for snacks that appear to offer no threat.
4. Nitrates, found at high levels in cured meats such as bacon and hot dogs, preserve colour and prevent microbes from taking up residence. But they’re bad – really bad. The nitrate itself is harmless, but it can convert to nitrite in your body, which in turn can form nitrosamines, powerful cancer-causing chemicals. Whenever possible, look for nitrate-free organic meats. If you must eat foods containing nitrates, take extra vitamin C, as it is known to prevent the conversion to nitrosamines in your stomach. Lastly, don’t barbecue your meat! It causes ‘HCA’s’ – toxic substances that bond to DNA and are cancer-causing molecules – to build up and puts you at a heightened risk for cancer.
5. Alcohol causes many problems, and I’m not talking here about moderate amounts of red wine. But liver toxicity occurs when we exceed our limits, and this causes free radical excess.
6. Raw oysters are great, but they can carry deadly bacteria that can cause severe illness or death. You take a big risk every time you consume them. To date, no government or independent body inspects seafood for safety or will guarantee its quality. Oysters are a safe and nutritious food if you cook them first.
7. Saturated animal fats include the fatty meats, especially beef and pork, or the skin on poultry. It also includes full-fat dairy products such as cheese, milk and cream. Fatty meat and dairy products do have some minor contributions to make to a diet – including nutrients that feed your brain – but not many that can’t be found elsewhere (like in nuts and seeds, for example).
8. Drinking soft drinks is a poor way to get fluids in the short term and a great way to develop diabetes in the longer term. You need water! Soft drinks are full of sugar or artificial sweeteners and often contain caffeine and artificial colours and flavours. Replace soft drinks with sparkling water mixed with fresh, pure juice.
9. High-fat and high-sodium snacks, including chips, should be avoided, even if they are made with vegetable oil. The balance of fat in our diets has shifted too far towards the omega-6 variety found in most processed vegetable oils. We use too much salt, leading to many cases of high blood pressure. And there’s now evidence that too many of these fats and sodium-rich foods may be leading to specific chronic diseases. One reason why we want to supplement the diet with the necessary omega-3 oils is to regain the proper omega balance and prevent everything from inflammation to heart disease.
10. Frozen meals may not be inherently bad for you if they contain all the “right” ingredients, but they do keep you from eating fresh, whole, natural foods that contain more nutrients, fibre, and disease-fighting phytochemicals. You may be tempted to excuse them as “better than fast food.” You may be sometimes pressured for time. But don’t let simple laziness displace real foods in your diet.