What Are Superfoods? The Best Antioxidant-Rich Food List
By: Emma Rose
- “Superfood” is really just a marketing term to convince you that a food is packed with nutrients that will boost your health and performance.
- So what are you really looking for in a superfood? On top of high vitamin and mineral content, true superfoods are rich in antioxidants.
- Antioxidants are powerful compounds that protect your cells from premature aging by fighting oxidation and inflammation. The more you have in your diet, the better.
- Read on for a list of the top antioxidant-rich superfoods to keep you fit, resilient, and young.
Acai berries, salmon, avocados, and kale are just a few of the hundreds of foods that skyrocketed their way to nutrition stardom as “superfoods.” It may seem like every new fruit or vegetable that hits your Instagram feed claims superfood status, but what does it actually mean to be super?
“Superfood” is really just a marketing term to convince you that a food is packed with nutrients that will boost your health and performance. The term gets bandied about more than it should, with everything from creamers to energy bars claiming the title.
So what are you really looking for in a superfood? On top of high vitamin and mineral content, true superfoods are rich in antioxidants — powerful compounds that protect your cells from premature aging by fighting oxidation and inflammation. The more you have in your diet, the better.
Let’s take the mask off of superfoods, and look at the antioxidants that give these foods their star powers. Below, your guide to superfood antioxidants, what they do, and where to find them.
Antioxidants — what makes them so great?
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants defend your body by fighting off molecules that cause oxidation. Oxidative stress, or too much oxidation in your body, results from an imbalance between antioxidants (the good guys) and free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that are missing electrons, and will do just about anything to steal one back. Your body produces some naturally, and some are caused by damage from UV exposure, poor diet, smoking, chemicals or some pharmaceuticals.
Oxidation occurs when these free radicals react aggressively with other molecules to steal their electrons. This oxidation can alter your DNA, damage important fats in your cell membranes, or scramble proteins. Chronic oxidative stress leads to damaged cells, inflammation, and chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Antioxidants are molecules that donate extra electrons to satisfy the attacking free radicals, without becoming free radicals themselves. This means that antioxidants can prevent oxidation and protect your DNA and tissues from damage and inflammation.
Like most good things, your body produces fewer antioxidants as you age, so understanding the best sources of antioxidants in your diet can help you stay stronger longer, and put off that aging thing as long as possible.
To maximize your antioxidant intake, load your plate with a bright rainbow of colorful of vegetables, fruits, and seafood. Read on for the top 7 most antioxidant-rich superfoods.
Top antioxidant-rich superfood list
To index every superfood here would leave you with a hefty shopping list, but fortunately, the National Institute on Aging developed a ranking system. The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale measures the antioxidant capacity of different foods. Foods with high ORAC scores boast potent antioxidants in lab tests, and include leafy greens, colorful fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds, and certain spices, herbs, and teas.
Antioxidant-rich superfoods usually contain several antioxidant compounds, with one or two making up the brunt of their composition. Here, the top superfoods to keep you fit, resilient, and young.
If there’s one antioxidant you remember, make it this one: Nicknamed the “master antioxidant” for its free-radical-busting superpowers, glutathione is crucial to detoxing and boosting performance in every cell of your body. This powerful antioxidant is your body’s natural detox agent: it protects against inflammation, oxidation and toxins, while supporting your mitochondria, boosting immunity, and recharging other antioxidants and enzymes. (It’s even great for hangovers!)
While your cells produce some themselves, today’s polluted, high-stress world can quickly sap your glutathione stores. It’s a good idea to take a supplement, or give your body the raw building blocks to build its own, from n-acetyl-l-cysteine, glutamine, alpha-lipoic acid, or grass-fed whey.
2. Co-enzyme Q10
CoQ10 is another potent antioxidant produced in your body, and used to protect all cell membranes. Its antioxidant abilities make it necessary for cell communication, mitochondrial function, and ATP formation. Low CoQ10 levels are associated with a range of chronic diseases, including neurodegenerative, muscular and cardiac diseases, as well as diabetes and cancer. CoQ10 also helps re-fuel other antioxidants, keeping you young and resilient. As you age, your body has a tougher time converting CoQ10 into its active form, ubiquinone, so consider adding supplements or ubiquinone-rich foods like organ meats and fatty fish.
3. Vitamin C
On top of being vital for collagen formation and a big immunity-booster, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is also a powerful antioxidant. Vitamin C easily donates electrons to neutralize free radicals, and help prevent oxidation in your body.  It’s also used to manufacture glutathione, another big name antioxidant.
Load up your plate with vitamin C-rich foods, including broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes. It can be hard to get enough vitamin C from food, so supplement with at least 500mg per day.
4. Vitamin E
Vitamin E (tocopherol) is a fat soluble antioxidant, and protects the fats in your cell membranes from oxidation and damage. It plays a big role in protecting your skin from damage and aging caused by the free radicals that form with UV exposure. There are 8 forms of vitamin E, although your body’s preferred form is ?-tocopherol. You can up your vitamin E intake by incorporating more nuts, seeds, and olive oil in your diet.
5. Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)
Lipoic acid is known as the “universal antioxidant” for its ability to ease oxidative stress throughout the body. Studies show that ALA supports lowering glucose levels in diabetic conditions, boosts mitochondrial function, and fights premature aging. ALA also has neuroprotective and cancer-fighting effects, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. On top of its own benefits, ALA can also help recharge vitamin C, vitamin E, and glutathione to be useful again as antioxidants. 
Your body makes some ALA to cover basic functions, but higher amounts are needed to tap into its potential as an antioxidant. You can boost your ALA intake from muscle and organ meats, or supplements. Aim for between 300 and 600mg a day.
This powerful antioxidant comes from red marine algae, and is what gives wild salmon and crustaceans their reddish flesh. Astaxanthin is a highly potent antioxidant that prevents oxidative stress in your brain, nervous system and heart, and boosts your mitochondrial energy production.
Astaxanthin makes its mark as as an eye and skin defender. It slows and reverses age-related eye degeneration and accumulates in your skin to protect you from UVA rays and prevent wrinkles and sun damage. Load up on astaxanthin by eating wild-caught seafood (especially salmon), or supplementing with a high quality krill oil supplement.
Flavonoids are a diverse group of antioxidant plant chemicals that promote memory, learning, and cognitive function by protecting your brain from oxidation and inflammation. You can find them in berries, teas, dark chocolate, and coffee.
Here are two especially potent flavonoid antioxidants you want to add to your diet:
- Resveratrol: You can find resveratrol in cocoa, red wine, and the skins of grapes and blueberries. As a strong antioxidant, its anti-aging superpowers include boosting cardiovascular health, protecting skin, and defense against cancer, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.
- Fisetin: Recent studies with mice found that the anti-aging antioxidant fisetin increases lifespan by about 10 percent and improves quality of life with age. Clinical trials are underway to see if the same is true for humans, but for now it can’t hurt to add more strawberries, apples, persimmons, and cucumber to your plate. Fisetin also shows promise in protecting from stroke, Alzheimer’s, and depression, and helps reduce inflammation-related disease by knocking out several inflammatory compounds.
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