Greetings, League of Wildness!
No, I’m not suggesting you start the day with rainbow-colored candies 😉 I’m talking about canthaxanthin, cryptoxanthin, and astaxanthin. Wait, what? 🤔
Maybe you are more familiar with beta-carotene or lycopene?
These fancy-sounding words are types of antioxidants, which are necessary nutrients for optimal health. You’ve probably heard that the beta-carotene in carrots is good for your eyes, or that the lycopene in tomatoes is good for…something. But did you know there are thousands of antioxidants, and we likely don’t even know a fraction of the ones that exist yet? Some sources claim that wild blueberries might have as many as 13,000 antioxidants in them. 🤯
Antioxidants are commonly found in plant foods but are also found in butter, pasture-raised egg yolks, shellfish, and salmon. Antioxidants fall under a class of nutrients called ‘phytonutrients’ which are separate from vitamins and minerals (although some vitamins are antioxidants, like vitamin A). Even though some of them are found in animal products, this is due to the plant foods that those animals eat.
What is an antioxidant?
When our bodies turn food into usable energy, unstable molecules called “free radicals” are produced. This is a normal biological process, but our modern lives can contribute to an overproduction of these molecules which makes it difficult for our bodies to eliminate them.
Oxidative stress can result in our bodies due to an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals. Oxidative stress causes inflammation and damage to our cells and tissues, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and cancer. This can be caused by free radicals from our diets, pollution, UV radiation (including from the sun), exposure to heavy metals, and even some types of medications.
Think of it like alcohol: If you have a single alcoholic drink, your body will clear the toxins in it in a short period of time, leaving you feeling fine the next day. If you have multiple drinks, you might get drunk and feel like garbage the next morning. This is caused by the build-up of toxins due to your body being unable to clear them faster than they accumulate. The same happens with oxidative stress over time.
Antioxidants are substances that assist our bodies in clearing the free radicals that cause oxidative stress by either pairing with them to deactivate them, or breaking them down.
How do I get more antioxidants?
It might seem overwhelming to consider adding yet another thing into your diet. You likely won’t have much luck asking the supermarket manager which products have cryptoxanthin, so you’ll have to take matters into your own hands. But it’s not as hard as it sounds!
The best way to increase your antioxidants is simply by eating a varied diet that includes ample fruits and vegetables. Nature gives us some good clues within the huge palette of colors that foods come in. The hues of many whole foods, especially plant foods, are the result of the primary antioxidants they contain.
For example, eggplant, blueberries, and blackberries get their purple and blue colors from anthocyanin. Carrots, squash, orange bell peppers, and sweet potatoes get their orange color from beta-carotene. Lutein comes in those dark, leafy greens we are always told to eat: swiss chard, kale, spinach, collards, okra, and so on. Lycopene comes from cooked tomatoes and watermelon. Wild salmon contains astaxanthin, which is also found in some shellfish and red algae.
You don’t need to memorize or know how to pronounce the names of any of these antioxidants. Simply choose a variety of colors from the produce section. For example, go for a sweet potato instead of a white potato. Better yet, if you can find them, a purple potato. We tend to get few purple and blue foods in our diets, which is why I forage gallons of wild blueberries. Picking them at berry farms is a great option, too. Target’s Good and Gather brand of frozen wild blueberries are also amazing.
Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers have more antioxidant value than green bell peppers. This is strictly a comparison of antioxidant types. If you love green peppers and white potatoes, they are still good for you and you should enjoy them, just work on expanding the colors you eat.
If you get the chance, I encourage you to note the yolk color in a pasture-raised chicken egg versus a standard store-bought one. You’ll probably be amazed how much richer the color is in the pasture-raised egg yolk. That is because the chicken was allowed to eat its natural diet, which includes bugs, worms, and seeds versus the grain-fed diet that factory chickens eat. The bright, vibrant yolk is a result of a high level of carotenoids, another type of antioxidant.
Vibrantly-colored spices such as cayenne, turmeric, and ginger are another way to add some antioxidants to your diet.
A few things you can do to increase your antioxidants and decrease free radical bad guys
Enjoy a big salad, a nutrient bowl, or a smoothie. Be careful with smoothies, it can be easy to add a lot of sugar if you add honey or other sweeteners. My “smoothies” usually contain berries, some flax or chia seeds, greens, and some dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao.
Side note: dark chocolate is a great source of antioxidants! But you have to get the good stuff. At least 70% cocoa/cacao, and the more the better. It can take some getting used to if you normally eat milk chocolate, but it’s worth it.
When you shop, include a rainbow of choices in your grocery list. Pick some red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple produce foods every week (bonus points if you can get them on most days!). I have a hard time with this in the winter, but in the summer I make it one of my personal challenges to include as many colors as possible every day.
Reconsider how often you eat *processed* meat. The risk for cancers associated with regular consumption of these types of food is becoming more apparent every day. These include things like hot dogs, salami, sausage, and yes, bacon. 😭Basically, if it contains nitrites or nitrates, you want to limit how much you eat.
Limit how often you sear your meats when cooking. Meat is a valuable and effective way of getting nutrients, but how you cook it can have a negative impact. If the meat has been seared to the point it has black marks on it or has extra crispy, dark edges, this can increase the number of free radicals produced in the body by a significant amount. Grilling, searing, and frying are the most problematic cooking methods while slow cooking, pressure cooking, and sous vide are better options. Remember frequency matters, too. We love to grill, we just don’t do it daily. We often sous vide our steak and it is amazing.
For this and a million other reasons, limit (or stop) cooking with heated oil, especially the partially hydrogenated ones AKA vegetable oil. When these types of oils are heated, it changes their chemical makeup and they become incredibly harmful to our bodies. You can saute vegetables in a tablespoon or two of water. There is a lot of back-and-forth over whether some types of oils are ok to saute in. While they hash out the details, I put olive and avocado oils on my salads, but I don’t cook with them.
Avoid antioxidant supplements. Most of the time, you are spending your hard-earned money on something that will provide no benefit. Instead, spend it on whole foods so you get the benefits of the antioxidants as well as fiber, water, vitamins and minerals. Numerous studies have tested the impact of these supplements and found little to no benefit in comparison to eating the whole food counterpart.
A couple of resources for those who like to nerd out on science as I do 😂
Have a wild last weekend of July!
Yours in colorful wildness,