Fresh berries in cardboard pints

Antioxidant Rich Berries. Tasty Kick-Ass Nutrition

Fresh washed strawberries in a metal bowl - by Doug Cook RD

Updated Feb 2019

Berries are amazing.

 

The most exciting news about berries is their abundant anti-cancer, anti-disease and anti-aging benefits!

 

Your body needs antioxidants to protect you from degenerative diseases such as cancer, dementia, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

 

Most the antioxidants used by your body are made by your body itself. It uses nutrients like selenium, zinc, manganese and copper to make enzymes as part of the antioxidant defense complex.

 

However, there are other types of antioxidants that come directly from food too. These include things like vitamins C & E, beta carotene etc. But that’s not all.

 

Plant foods also have another class of plant-based chemicals called phyotnutrients.  These compounds do double-duty. Many have classic antioxidant properties but they also “fight the good fight” by helping your body’s defenses in other ways.

 

When it comes to health, berries, rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients, can play a central role in protecting your health (1).

 

What’s not to love?

 

What are Phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients are naturally occurring plant compounds.

 

These compounds give plants their respective flavour, colour and scent. Phytonutrients are abundant in all types of fruits and vegetables, particularly berries. The prefix ‘phyto’ simply means plant.

 

They are not technically essential to health. You can survive without them, but they have bioactive compounds that enhance health. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving. More phytonutrients (and antioxidants) = better overall health (2).

 

They do several beneficial things for us:

 

 

What’s also really cool about phytonutrients is the fact that they turn on disease-fighting genes and turn off disease-promoting genes. Whoa.

 

 

Mixed frozen strawberries blueberries raspberries - by Doug Cook RD

 

Health benefits of berries

Plant foods in particular are rich in antioxidants and of course phytonutrients. And it’s not just vegetables and fruit. Antioxidants are found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, legumes, herbs and spices. Berries have been studied for their unique compounds including polyphenols and anthocyanidins (3). Berries will help your health in two main ways.

Antioxidants

Let’s face it, the word antioxidant has been over-used and blown out of proportion. Anyone promoting a recipe such as the latest superfood smoothie or superfood shake uses the word. Same thing when products like the “best green superfood powder” are promoted.

 

Despite how the word has been used in food marketing, antioxidants are a great ally in your health journey. It’s about how they literally sacrifice themselves to help you. They take the fall when free radicals come fighting. Rather than damaging your DNA, or the fats that make up your cell membranes, antioxidants like vitamin C take the hit (4).

 

Wrapping your head around what a free radical is can be challenging. These are molecules that can wreak havoc on your body when there are too many of them. Free radicals cause oxidation.

 

You’ve seen oxidation before. An apple core that’s turn brown or a rusty nail. Oxidation in the lens cause cataracts, in the pancreas can cause diabetes. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is the first step in atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

 

Dried Cranberries in a Bowl - by Doug Cook RD

 

Free radicals

Free radicals are a part of normal metabolism: the burning of glucose and fat for energy and and breathing oxygen. That’s why your body has a sophisticated antioxidant defense complex and network to counter the damange.

 

Other sources of free radicals include excess sun exposure and everyday environmental toxins. Several other factors and lifestyle habits are known to promote excessive free radical formation and oxidative stress:

  • Air pollution
  • High blood sugar levels (56)
  • Alcohol intake
  • Cigarette, cigar or cannabis smoke (7, 8)
  • Toxins
  • Consuming lots of polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils (9)
  • Common infections by bacteria, fungi or viruses.
  • Excessive intake of iron (supplements and red meat) (10).
  • Intense and prolonged exercise, which causes tissue damage (11).
  • Antioxidant deficiency (12).

Free radicals are also made from some of the foods we eat such as foods with trans fats, fried foods, and high processed foods (a.k.a. “junk food). Foods with a lot of added/refined sugar and refined foods in general also create free radicals when digested.

 

In short, think of getting antioxidants as as rust-proofing your body.

 

Inflammation

Everyone has heard of inflammation but perhaps not completely sure what it means or how it impacts health.

 

Inflammation is a natural process that our body uses to protect against infections, irritants, and damage. Inflammation helps our bodies eliminate damaged cells and tissues and helps them to repair. It also helps to eliminate the very thing causing the inflammation in the first place, for example, by fighting an infection.

 

Inflammation is a natural process to protect and heal our bodies. However, it can become self-perpetuating and stick around way longer than necessary. This long-term (chronic) inflammation is often associated with several health condition.

 

When inflammation sticks around longer than necessary, it’s called chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can damage the body over time, and it can be ongoing without any noticeable signs or symptoms at all.

 

It’s this type of inflammation that’s linked to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and excess body fat. It’s also linked with many other conditions of the body (arthritis), brain, and even mental health concerns (depression and anxiety).

 

One of the best ways to lower inflammation is to eat a diet  with lots of plant foods with lots anti-inflammatory compounds, like the so-called Mediterranean diet.  Don’t let the name fool you. Bottom line is to include more plant foods, as well as, fish and seafood.

 

Berries though, have a big role to play in lowering inflammation. Their phytonutrients do wonders to squash inflammation. Getting more berries, of any kind, is a good strategy when it comes to cooling the flames (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

 

Fresh blueberries tumbling out of a basked onto a table - by Doug Cook RD

Nrf2

Nerf-what?

Nrf2 is a protein whose job is to increase the production of antioxidant proteins (by turning on the genes responsible for the task). Several compounds, and eventually medications, are being studied for their ability to modify Nrf2 activity for the treatment of oxidation-related diseases.

 

Nrf2 is also involved in normal detoxification  in the liver. It’s also needed to produce the master detoxifying molecule called glutathione. If Nrf2 had a business card it would read “Detox Hub & Antioxidant Defense Central”.

 

Several nutrients and compounds found in food support Nrf2 in it’s role. Things like omega-3 fats, vitamin D, sulforaphane, curcumin, apigenin to name a few (20, 21, 22, 23, 24).

 

However, many common antioxidants exert their benefit in this way. Not only do they neutralize free radicals directly, they help to ramp up Nrf2 activity.

 

Berries contain several known phytonutrients which positively influence Nrf2 such as:

  • Anthocyanins (25, 26)
  • Flavan-3-ols (27)
  • Resveratrol (28)
  • Ellagic acid (a.k.a. tannin) (29)

 

Good news! Berries are always with us!

Whether they’re fresh, local and seasonal berries or frozen, now is a great time to include more berries into your daily diet.

  • Blend them up to make an antioxidant smoothie
  • Use them to make fresh fruit salad
  • Throw them on top of Greek yogurt, ricotta or cottage cheese with bran cereal (my favorite!)
  • Top your favorite whole grain cereal [oatmeal, oat-bran etc] for some added nutritional punch and color.
  • Stew some to make a great tasting fruit compote.

 

PRO TIP: Remember, frozen berries are just as nutritious – they work well as they won’t spoil as quickly and they allow you to eat berries all year round.

 

Berries on wooden table - by Doug Cook RD

 

For an antioxidant smoothie recipe, check out these ideas.

 

For more recipe ideas, check out

 

Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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