Firstly, what are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds found in certain foods that help to neutralise the free radicals (damaging molecules produced through the body’s process of oxidation) in your blood. In short, they help to protect our cells and DNA from damage that can lead to disease. That’s why it’s really important that we take in more antioxidants than we use up. In fact, the very act of eating increases oxidative stress, which is the attack on your cells from free radicals.
Antioxidants originate from the plant kingdom, due to the thousands of antioxidant compounds found naturally in fruits and vegetables. Ideally, fresh produce should be sneaking its way into every meal that we eat. But, we know that that’s not always possible – takeaway nights, dining out, dinner at a friend’s house…sometimes it’s a little hard to eat healthy all the time.
A few interesting studies have shed a light on antioxidants and their ability to counteract the negative oxidative effects of an “unhealthy” meal e.g. a meal that is high in fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates, and low in whole foods.
A 2010 review found that consuming fruits which are high in phenolic phytonutrients (health-promoting compounds) with an unhealthy meal (high fat, pro-inflammatory, low in nutrients) increases the antioxidant capacity of the blood and helps to counterbalance some of the negative effects of the meal.
In another interesting study, participants were given standard breakfast items which caused a high increase in oxidized cholesterol in their blood stream 6 hours after the meal. However, adding a cup of antioxidant-rich strawberries to the meal kept the meal from contributing to further oxidation, and allowed them to eat lunch at a baseline oxidation level.
A similar study found that eating a bunch of grapes with a meal resulted in a rise in blood antioxidant levels, leaving the body in a positive antioxidant balance for a few hours. The same results were found with blueberries.
These findings highlight the importance of eating antioxidants with every meal, and if you can’t avoid an unhealthy meal, adding a side of berries or grapes to your plate may be beneficial in helping to maintain oxidative balance.
A 2004 study found that out of all fruits, berries (e.g. strawberries, blueberries) were the best source of polyphenol antioxidants.
Berries are on the dirty dozen, so organic berries are best. Keeping frozen berries on hand is also a great idea, and actually, frozen berries often have more antioxidants and other nutrients because they’re frozen shortly after picking. Essentially, frozen produce is often even fresher than what we call “fresh produce”!
Burton-Freeman B, Linares A, Hyson D, Kappagoda T. Strawberry modulates LDL oxidation and postprandial lipemia in response to high-fat meal in overweight hyperlipidemic men and women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2010;29(1):46-54. doi:10.1080/07315724.2010.10719816
Burton-Freeman B. Postprandial metabolic events and fruit-derived phenolics: a review of the science. Br J Nutr. 2010;104 Suppl 3:S1-S14. doi:10.1017/S0007114510003909
Ursini F, Zamburlini A, Cazzolato G, Maiorino M, Bon GB, Sevanian A. Postprandial plasma lipid hydroperoxides: a possible link between diet and atherosclerosis. Free Radic Biol Med. 1998;25(2):250-252. doi:10.1016/s0891-5849(98)00044-6