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On average, plant foods contain 64 times the antioxidant power of animal products. This may be why those eating a plant-based diet, even for a short amount of time, generally have higher antioxidant levels. The meat industry has considered adding plant foods to meat in order to boost antioxidant levels, though this may make processed meat more carcinogenic.

Antioxidant supplements do not appear to have the same benefits as whole foods, and may decrease lifespan.

Antioxidants help protect against free radicals and DNA damage, including countering possible DNA damage caused by high-intensity exercise or radiation exposure from air flights.

Antioxidants may enhance dental health, protect against skin aging, slow general aging, reduce Alzheimer’s risk, reduce inflammation, maintain male fertility and sexual function, prevent and treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), prevent and treat asthma, prevent the hardening of arteries, reduce risk for stroke, heart attack, heart disease, and cancer, lower cholesterol, block the formation of nitrites into carcinogens, and increase stool size, and lower the risk of asthma, depression, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stomach cancer, and esophageal cancer.

A daily antioxidant goal in the U.S. for men is 11,000 units a day, while the daily goal for women is 8,000, with no apparent upper limit. To stay out of oxidative debt, one should try to eat antioxidant-rich plant foods at every meal, especially if we’re under stress, as antioxidant levels can plummet within two hours of a stressful event.   

Organic produce appears to have more antioxidants than conventional. Hydroponic basil has higher antioxidant content than basil grown in soil. For vegetables, whether they’re cooked or raw can affect the antioxidant levels – boiling may best retain the antioxidant power of sweet potatoes, and boiled beans may have more antioxidants than sprouted. Cold-steeped tea may make more antioxidants available than hot tea. 

Whole fruits, beans and other legumes, nuts, and vegetables are high in antioxidants. Ounce per ounce, herbs and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, and peppermint are so rich in antioxidants, that just a small pinch can go a long way.

A general rule of thumb is to pick the deepest colored fruit or vegetable since many of the antioxidants are plant pigments. Specific foods that are high in antioxidants include acai berries, apples, Amla or Indian gooseberries, beets, berries, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, red kidney beans, Ceylon cinnamon, chai tea, chamomile tea, dandelion tea, lemongrass tea, rosehip tea, rooibos tea, cherries, cloves, cranberries and cranberry juice without added sugar, currants, dark chocolate, dates, date sugar, molasses, dragon’s blood, dried pomegranate seeds, dried Indian gooseberries, dried apples, dried cherries, goji berries, flaxseed, green tea, hibiscus tea, kale, lemon balm tea, most leafy greens, olives, mushrooms, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, plums, pecans, pears, pomegranates, artichokes, red rice, black rice, tomato juice, turmeric curcumin, coffee, and whole oats. Ranking widely available foods by number of antioxidants per dollar spent, red cabbage tops the list. Caloric restriction and exercise may also boost antioxidant needs.

Image Credit: Amanda Rae. This image has been modified.

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