We need to get a daily minimum of 8-11,000 antioxidant units a day in our food just to stay out of oxidative debt (see my video on The Reason We Need More Antioxidants). To reach that minimum, all we have to do is eat lots of fruits and vegetables, right? Not exactly. Let’s say I ate a whole banana during breakfast (in addition to whatever else). For lunch I eat a typical American salad— iceberg lettuce, half cup of cucumber slices, and canned peaches for dessert. Supper included a side serving of peas and carrots and half a cup of snap peas along with yet another salad. And, finally, let’s say I had a cup of watermelon for dessert. I just ate nine servings of fruits and vegetables and am feeling all good about myself. However, I only made it up to 2700 units, less than a quarter of the way to my minimum daily recommended intake. What am I supposed to do, eat 36 servings a day? (For a cool visual of this, check out my video, How to Reach the Antioxidant “RDA”).
What if instead of that banana, I had a single serving of blueberries? And instead of iceberg lettuce for that afternoon salad, I ate four leaves of red leaf lettuce, maybe some kidney beans on top, and a teaspoon of dried oregano as a bonus? For a snack, I had an apple and some dates. It’s not even suppertime, only had five servings, yet I’ve left the minimum recommended daily intake of antioxidants in the dust (topping 28,000 units!). That’s why it’s not just quantity of fruits and veggies that matters, but also the quality. All fruits and veggies aren’t the same. I make this point in different ways in videos like Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better? and Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants. If possible, we should try to choose the healthiest options out there.
Now that it’s midday and I’ve reached my daily minimum of antioxidants with those five super servings, can I just eat whatever I want for dinner? That’s probably not a good idea. The estimated minimum antioxidant need of 8,000-11,000 units does not take into account the added amounts needed if other oxidant stressors—”such as illness, cigarette smoke, meat consumption, air pollution, sleep deprivation”—are present. If we had to deal with these stressors we’d need to consume more fruits and veggies just to stay out of the red.
In my video Antioxidant Level Dynamics, I profiled a study that used an argon laser to measure human antioxidant levels in real time. The study’s most important finding was that antioxidant levels can plummet within two hours of a stressful event, but it may take up to three days to get our levels back to normal. The take-home message is that, especially when we’re sick, stressed, or tired, we should try to go above and beyond the antioxidant food minimum. Ideally, we need to be constantly soaking our bloodstream with antioxidants, meaning that we should consume high-powered fruits and vegetables—like berries, beans, and green tea or hibiscus—all day long.
Unsure of which foods have the most antioxidants? I have a series of videos on this very topic. See Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods and Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods. (Note these are measured based on test tube tests. There are more sophisticated ways to measure antioxidant activity. See Anti Up on the Veggies). Spices in particular present a powerful source of antioxidants. See Antioxidants in a Pinch.
Are there diminishing returns to getting too many antioxidants? See Maxing Out on Antioxidants. So if we have that bowl of berries in the morning to meet our minimum daily antioxidant needs can we just call it a day? See: Antioxidant Rich Foods With Every Meal.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.