Claudia Fajardo-Lira, a member of the Institute of Food Technologists and a professor of food science and nutrition at California State University, Northridge, explains that antioxidants are integral to optimal health.
These compounds help neutralize free radicals that can damage cellular proteins and DNA. This damage can lead to the development of disease and accelerate the aging process.
Meat and animal products contain some amount of antioxidants, but these often come from the nutrient-rich plants that the animals fed on.
Therefore, it's best to rely on plant-based foods for your antioxidant intake. On that note, here are 12 of the healthiest sources of antioxidants, according to nutritionists:
Anthocyanins are the plant pigments responsible for the bright red, purple and blue skins of some fruits. Blueberries, in particular, are rich in these pigments. But besides giving fruits their vibrant color, anthocyanins also double as antioxidants.
In fact, recent studies suggest that anthocyanins can help reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure, minimizing the risk of heart disease and other cardiometabolic conditions.
Dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cacao is the healthiest chocolate around. Cacao beans, which are used to make chocolate, contain high amounts of flavonoids. These beneficial compounds have powerful antioxidant properties.
Research suggests that flavonoids play a major role in cancer prevention, besides maintaining heart health. Some of their other health benefits include enhancing cognitive abilities, reducing inflammation and improving blood pressure regulation.
Mild-tasting artichokes contain an incredible amount of nutrients and antioxidants. Together, these compounds help reduce cholesterol and support optimal gut health.
To boost your antioxidant levels, eat steamed artichokes. Studies show that steaming artichokes increases their antioxidant content by 15 percent.
Rich in fiber, protein and unsaturated fats, pecans make a great snack food. Recent studies suggest that regular consumption of pecans and other nuts can lead to a significant increase in blood antioxidants levels.
Anthocyanins are also the major antioxidants and plant pigments found in red cabbage. Besides supporting heart health, anthocyanins also help reduce diabetes and cancer risk. (Related: Eating more red cabbage reduces your risk of Alzheimer's.)
These bright little fruits contain and antioxidant vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and manganese, that protect against cellular damage.
Test-tube studies show that raspberry anthocyanins can also kill breast, colon and stomach cancer cells.
On top of their high protein and fiber content, beans also contain high amounts of antioxidants. Pinto beans, for instance, are rich sources of a natural antioxidant called kaempferol. Kaempferol is extensively studied for its anti-cancer properties.
Grapes, both the purple and red varieties, are chock-full of vitamin C, selenium and other nutrients that double as antioxidants.
Anthocyanins are also behind the vibrant color and reported health benefits of these fruits, which include better protection against heart disease and cancer.
Spinach is one of the healthiest sources of zeaxanthin and lutein. These antioxidants are widely studied for their eye benefits. In fact, recent studies show that zeaxanthin and lutein can protect against age-related macular degeneration.
Beets may be an acquired taste, but it'd be a shame to miss out on their high betalain content. Betalains, the pigments responsible for the bright purple-red color of beets, have been found to reduce colon cancer risk and support digestive health.
Like spinach, kale is a great source of nutrients and antioxidants for eye health, including vitamin A, zeaxanthin and lutein. Red kale, a variety of kale with purple-red leaves, also offers high amounts of anthocyanins.
Carrots, acorn squash, butternut squash and other orange-colored produce can boost eye health because of their high carotenoid content. Carotenoids are the pigments behind the red and orange coloration of these vegetables.
Beta-carotene, the most abundant and popular carotenoid in foods, can help fight inflammation, reduce free radical-induced damage in the eyes and decrease cancer risk.
The richest and healthiest sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables. That said, it is important to also eat other plant-based foods, such as nuts, seeds and legumes, as part of a balanced diet to get a variety of antioxidants.
Read more about the health benefits of antioxidant-rich foods at FoodIsMedicine.com.