Antioxidants improve health and prevent disease because they control free radical activity in the body.

Free radicals are unstable compounds that impair immunity and can cause cancer, heart disease and premature ageing. Antioxidants are the only compounds that can check their proliferation. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules and are an undesirable by-product of the body’s automatic energy cycle that is intricately powered by the efficient use of oxygen. Sometimes, an unstable and reactive oxygen molecule slips out of this cycle. In an attempt to gain stability, this oxygen molecule attaches itself to stable but vulnerable compounds, making them unstable and free radicals in turn. Left alone, therefore, free radicals make more free radicals quickly, generating too much oxidative stress—much more than is good for health.

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Antioxidants are compounds that prevent this oxidative stress, nip the proliferation of health-damaging free radicals, and repair resulting damaged tissue. It’s the job of antioxidants to render ineffective or “clean up" free radicals that can harm our cells. The human body does not produce enough antioxidants on its own to be able to neutralize all the free radicals. That’s why we need to eat foods that are rich storehouses of antioxidants.

It is preferable to obtain antioxidants from foods instead of supplements.

Vegetables, berries, fruits, legumes such as kidney beans, wholegrains such as oat and barley, and seeds such as sunflower are rich sources of antioxidants. The minerals such as selenium, copper, manganese and zinc that these foods contain quell free radical proliferation. And the vitamins C and E that fruits and vegetables have also protect the body from cancers and heart disease. Vitamin C quenches free radicals from the body’s watery components such as blood and vitamin E from the fatty components, such as cholesterol.

Boost your antioxidant intake for the best in balanced nutrition:

Enjoy at least two-three fruits daily. Citrus fruits such as oranges and sweet lime have the antioxidant compound limonene; strawberries contain ellagic acid, grapes resveratrol and apples flavonoids. All of these compounds offer protection from cancer.

Have a serving of cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower at least five days in a week—they contain the cancer-fighting compound sulforaphane.

Drink organic soya milk. It contains isoflavones that can boost immunity, inhibit tumour growth, lower blood cholesterol and maintain healthier cardiac arteries.

Include garlic into your food. If you can eat garlic raw, then chop a clove of garlic in three or more pieces and swallow like a tablet. This way you prevent bad breath and the allicin it contains can lower blood cholesterol and protect from stomach cancer.

Onions contain high levels of the compound quercetin which works well to treat allergies. They also contain sulfides that prevent heart disease. Raw onions are good for controlling diabetes.

Black tea contains flavonoids that protect from heart disease; those in green tea protect against breast cancer. So replace your regular tea with green and black teas.

Have a teaspoon of freshly ground flaxseed powder every day. Avoid roasting flaxseeds to prevent its contents from turning rancid. Flaxseeds contain lignans that help with cancer prevention.

The lycopene in cooked tomatoes protects DNA from being damaged. Ensure that you include one tomato in your daily cooking

A daily serving of oat porridge goes a long way in protection from heart disease. This is because oats contain the antioxidant phenolic acids, which assist vitamin C to prevent oxidative stress in the arteries.  

Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.

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