10 High-Antioxidant Foods That Prove Food Is Medicine
To help keep your waistline slim, your heart happy, and your brain sharp, reach for these highly nutritious foods.
Consider nutrient-rich foods for your arsenal against chronic disease.
Have you ever wondered what makes a blueberry blue? Well, technically blueberries are purple, but that rich color you see comes from anthocyanin pigments, which are found naturally in foods like blueberries.
All foods contain natural pigments that gives them a unique color, according to a study published in February 2016 in Current Opinion in Food Science. Beta-carotene makes carrots orange, chlorophyll gives vegetables such as kale and collard greens their verdant color — you get the idea. These pigments also act as antioxidants, which are compounds that inhibit molecules from a process called oxidation, notes the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. When molecules are in oxidative stress, toxic by-products known as free radicals form, which can cause damage to the cells in your body, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Antioxidants are important because they help stabilize cells and protect them from oxidative stress, which can lead to things like cancer, heart disease, and eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, noted a study published in December 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Per an earlier article published in the journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, scientists have theorized that antioxidants help promote longevity based on the free radical theory of aging. But more recent research, such as a study published in February 2014 in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, suggests the true root of aging is much more complex.
“In general, antioxidants help prevent or slow damage to our cells,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, who is based in Atlanta. “Vitamin C in particular may help prevent or delay certain cancers and promote healthy aging.”
RELATED: The Top Foods High in Vitamin C — and Why the Nutrient Is So Critical
Most natural foods contain at least some antioxidants, but Taylor Wolfram, RDN, who has a private practice in Chicago, says fruit and vegetables are the best source of antioxidants. While you can get them in supplements, Wolfram recommends getting antioxidants from plant-based sources as opposed to ones synthesized in a lab.
“The foundation of good nutrition — fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans — hasn’t changed,” she says. “If you’re eating animal protein, stick to seafood options and stay away from processed meats.”
There are so many antioxidant-rich foods out there, but here are 10 reliable sources. All recommended daily values (DV) are found in the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database.
Blueberries, Which May Help Fend Off Heart Disease
Blueberries may be small, but they pack a nutritious punch. Full of vitamins and minerals, blueberries are also rich in anthocyanins, which, we mentioned, act as powerful antioxidants.
Blueberries are labeled a superfood for a reason, and boast a number of health benefits that may include improving brain function, maintaining strong bones, and lowering risk for heart disease. A study published in May 2019 in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 1 cup of blueberries daily for six months reduced the risk of heart disease by 12 to 15 percent. Note that the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council funded this study, so the results may be skewed in their favor.
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 cup (148 g) of blueberries, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Protein 1.1 grams (g)
Calcium 9mg, or 1 percent of the DV
Iron 0.4mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Magnesium 9mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 18mg, or 1 percent of the DV
Potassium 114mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Vitamin C 14mg, or 16 percent of the DV
Folate 9mcg, or 2 percent of the DV
Vitamin A 80 IU, or 2 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 29mcg, or 24 percent of the DV
Broccoli, Which May Play a Role in Fighting Cancer
Like other dark, leafy vegetables, broccoli is a nutritional powerhouse. Broccoli is rich in phenolics, a type of chemical produced by plants to help protect them against oxidative stress, according to a study published in March 2015 in the journal Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. Phenolics are important for human health, too. Because these compounds are high in both antioxidants and anti-cancer properties, they may protect against disease, inflammation, and allergies, noted a study published in October 2014 in the International Journal of Chemical Engineering and Applications.
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 cup (91 g) of chopped broccoli, per the USDA:
Calcium 43mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Iron 1mg, or 4 percent of the DV
Magnesium 19mg, or 5 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 60mg, 5 percent of the DV
Potassium 288mg, 6 percent of the DV
Vitamin C 81mg, or 90 percent of the DV
Folate 57mcg, or 14 percent of the DV
Vitamin A 567 IU, or 11 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 93mcg, or 77 percent of the DV
Walnuts, Which May Help Slim Your Waistline
Rich in fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats, nuts make a great snack food. But if you had to dub one nut the healthiest (at least in terms of how much bang you get for your buck, nutrition-wise), it would be the walnut. Used in traditional Chinese medicine for brain health (walnuts have an uncanny resemblance to the human brain), walnuts help keep brain cells healthy and may play a role in improving memory, according to a study published in June 2016 in the journal Natural Product Communications.
Like all raw, unsalted nuts, walnuts are heart-healthy thanks to their polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, notes Harvard Health Publishing. A review published in December 2017 in Nutrients cites research that even suggests eating this Mediterranean diet staple in moderation may help you blast belly fat, thereby reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
But what makes walnuts really shine is their high polyphenol content. These compounds work with antioxidants to prevent oxidative stress, and may help with inflammation, weight control, and the prevention of diseases such as cancer, noted a study published in November 2017 in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Here are the nutrition facts for ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts, per the USDA:
Calcium 20mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Iron 1mg, or 4 percent of the DV
Spinach, Which May Improve Your Eyesight
A relative of the beetroot, spinach is a low-calorie veggie loaded with nutrients that may promote bone, eye, and hair health. In particular, there’s evidence linking lutein — a carotenoid found in spinach that also gives carrots their orange hue — to promoting eye health and preventing age-related macular degeneration, according to a study published in September 2018 in the journal Nutrients. Because lutein also functions as an antioxidant, spinach may also improve heart health and decrease the risk of cancer, the study found.
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 cup (30 g) of spinach, per the USDA:
Calcium 30mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Iron 0.8mg, or 5 percent of the DV
Magnesium 24mg, or 6 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 15mg, or 13 percent of the DV
Potassium 167mg, or 4 percent of the DV
Vitamin C 8mg, or 9 percent of the DV
Folate 58mcg, or 15 percent of the DV
Vitamin A 2813 IU, or 56 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 145mcg, or 121 percent of the DV
RELATED: 10 Healthy Foods That Contain Iron
Potatoes, Which May Protect Your Brain and Lower Blood Pressure
Potatoes get a bad rap because they’re high in carbs, but these tuberous vegetables are actually chock-full of vitamins and minerals. (And sorry: While delicious, potato spinoffs — we’re looking at you, potato chips and french fries — don’t count.) To reap the health benefits, aim for more colorful spuds, like sweet potatoes or purple potatoes; just like any other fruit and veggie as noted earlier, a more colorful potato means a higher concentration of antioxidants. Studies, like one published in April 2016 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, have shown the antioxidants in potatoes may help lower blood pressure, the risk of heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Here are the nutritional facts for 1 medium (213 g) russet potato (with skin), per the USDA:
Calcium 28mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Iron 2mg, or 10 percent of the DV
Magnesium 49mg, or 12 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 117mg, or 9 percent of the DV
Potassium 888mg, or 19 percent of the DV
Zinc 1mg, or 6 percent of the DV
Vitamin C 12mg, or 13 percent of the DV
Niacin 2mg, or 14 percent of the DV
Folate 30mcg, or 8 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 4mcg, or 3 percent of the DV
RELATED: All the Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes for People With Diabetes
Green Tea, Which May Offer Protection From Infection
Walk into almost any coffee shop and you’ll likely see some sort of featured green tea drink. (And if the shop doesn’t, they probably have some pretty disappointed customers.) Green tea’s explosion in popularity is due in part to its many touted health benefits, with research showing it to have anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, and antimicrobial properties, noted a study published in July 2018 in the journal BioMed Research International. What sets green tea apart from other teas is the high number of catechins, a type of phytochemical that acts as a powerful antioxidant. These catechins are known to be antimicrobial agents, and research, including the aforementioned study, has shown they have the ability to potentially help treat and prevent infectious diseases.
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 cup of brewed green tea (245 g), per the USDA:
Riboflavin 0.1mg, or 11 percent of the DV
Strawberries, Which Are a Fruit That May Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
Sweet and sumptuous, strawberries are a crown jewel of the berry world. Like blueberries, strawberries get their vivid red color from anthocyanins, granting them superfood status. Studies have shown strawberries may reduce inflammation and decrease blood pressure, which in turn could help prevent heart disease, according to a review published in July 2019 in the journal Nutrients.
The polyphenols (the same compound found in cranberries and spinach) in strawberries may also improve insulin sensitivity in overweight people without diabetes, which suggests this type of nature’s candy may help stave off type 2 diabetes, noted a study published in February 2017 in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Here are the nutritional facts for 1 cup (152 g) of strawberry halves, per the USDA:
Calcium 24mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Iron 1mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Magnesium 20mg, or 5 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 36mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Potassium 233mg, or 5 percent of the DV
Zinc 0.2mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Vitamin C 89mg, or 99 percent of the DV
Niacin 0.6mg, or 4 percent of the DV
Vitamin E 0.4mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Folate 36mcg, or 9 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 3mcg, or 3 percent of the DV
Beans, Which Offer a Healthy Source of Plant-Based Protein
There are hundreds of edible bean types out there, but because most common beans — like navy beans, black beans, and kidney beans — are nutritionally similar, we’ll look at beans as a whole. Full of fiber, phytochemicals, and protein, there’s a reason that beans are a staple in plant-based diets, such as vegetarian and vegan diets. In fact, beans have almost the same amount of protein found in meat according to a study published in November 2017 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
While beans have a reputation of causing digestive discomfort in some people, that usually subsides with regular consumption — and the numerous health benefits from these high nutrient nuggets also make up for it.
Here are the nutritional facts for 1 cup (266 g) of canned red kidney beans, drained and rinsed, per the USDA:
Calcium 92mg, or 7 percent of the DV
Iron 2mg, or 11 percent of the DV
Magnesium 46mg, or 11 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 186mg, or 15 percent of the DV
Potassium 395mg, or 8 percent of the DV
Zinc 1mg, or 9 percent of the DV
Thiamin 0.1mg, or 8 percent of the DV
Niacin 1mg, or 8 percent of the DV
Folate 36mcg, or 9 percent of the DV
Oats, Which May Help You Lose Weight and Boost Heart Health
This might as well be the Year of the Oat, as we’ve seen a resurgence of the cereal grain in the form of milk, flour, granola, beauty products, and even dog treats. Whole oats are hives of antioxidant activity, which may help reduce chronic inflammation linked to heart disease and diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Oats are also a good food for those trying to lose weight. The high levels of soluble fiber in oats allows them to readily absorb water, which helps slow digestion and makes you feel more full, notes Harvard.
Here are the nutritional facts for 100 g of steel cut oatmeal (about ⅔ cup cooked), per the USDA:
Calcium 35mg, or 3 percent of the DV
Iron 1mg, or 6 percent of the DV
Dark Chocolate (With At Least 70 Percent Cacao), Which May Improve Memory and Mood
Yes, you finally have an excuse to eat chocolate on the daily — dark chocolate, that is. The flavonoids in cacao beans, which chocolate is produced from, act as antioxidants that may play a role in cancer prevention, heart health, and weight loss, according to a study published in December 2016 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Consumed in small amounts (around 1 ounce per day), dark chocolate with a minimum of 70 percent cacao may have other added health benefits, such as improving cognition, preventing memory loss, and boosting mood, reported a study published in April 2018 in The FASEB Journal.
Here are the nutritional facts for 1 ounce (28.35 g), or about one square, of dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cacao, per the USDA:
Calcium 21mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Iron 3mg, or 19 percent of the DV
Magnesium 65mg, or 15 percent of the DV
Phosphorus 87mg, or 7 percent of the DV
Potassium 203mg, or 4 percent of the DV
Zinc 1mg, or 9 percent of the DV
Niacin 0.3mg, or 2 percent of the DV
Vitamin B12 0.1mcg, or 3 percent of the DV
Vitamin K 2mcg, or 2 percent of the DV