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This article gives tips on how to have a stress free Thanksgiving by incorporating antioxidants into your menu. This collaboration is by Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC & Heidi Moretti, RDN, MS, LN
Thanksgiving dinner. It’s one day in the year. That shouldn’t be a problem for our health, right? Right!
It is the parties, the after-parties, the cocktails, the desserts…..that roll the tally higher and higher for negative health consequences.
It is the before and then after that add up the most and sets the path for a very challenging new year to come.
So It is the gooey, sticky, decadent white foods we need to watch out for.
When it comes down to it Turkey dinner itself is not bad.
I would even argue Thanksgiving can be good for you. Turkey, potatoes, vegetables, and cranberries can be pretty balanced. However, If you make the cranberry sauce with all real fruit, there are no added sugars either.
It is all the add-ons that may increase the stress response and cause damage to your body.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you can’t pass up on all the ooey-gooey treats and decadent rolls. Is there anything you CAN do to protect your body?
Sciences says the answer is partially yes.
According to work done by the Agricultural Research Service chemist named Richard Prior and colleagues high-calorie meals WITHOUT antioxidants can lead to cell damage.
Constantly eating of foods low in antioxidants can trigger the stress response. It may also lead to heart disease and cancer.
Table of Contents
How Do Antioxidants Protect From the Stress of Excess?
High intake of low nutrient and high sugar foods can produce free radicals. They form when food is digested. This leads to the oxidative stress that we just mentioned. One way to combat this oxidative stress is to increase the number of antioxidants in our diet.
Additionally, antioxidants help to protect cells from oxidation and improve health. So even if you are stressing about your Turkey Day dinner, eating well on this special occasion can help improve your overall health.
Antioxidants occur in many nutrients including vitamins and minerals. They consist of the following:
Beta-carotene is a very important antioxidant. It has a distinguishing orange-yellow pigment found in colorful fruits and vegetables. The pigment is fat-soluble. Better absorption occurs when consumed with fats like avocado or cold-pressed olive oil.
Stress damages cells and tissues. Beta-carotene prevents his damage. This makes it a powerful antioxidant.
Studies show increases in beta-carotene intake reduced in stomach, lung, prostate, breast, head, and neck cancers .
Consuming at least 5 servings of green, orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables slowed cancer progression. The combination of beta-carotene along with other antioxidants in these same fruits and vegetables also decreased cancer risks.
How Much Beta Carotene Do We Need?
Just 3 to 6 mg of beta carotene may lower your chances of getting a chronic disease. This amount of beta carotene occurs in just five servings of fruits and vegetables. So just two and a half cups of vegetables a day will make a world of difference for your health!
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Beta Carotene?
Orange, yellow, and red-colored foods contain the most beta-carotene. I’m not talking about Mac & Cheese. Beta-carotene is most common in carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, mango, and apricots.
The best thing: you only need 1 serving (½ a cup) a day to improve your antioxidant levels.
Growing up, we always had lots of pre-meal vegetable appetizers. I remember feeling full of vegetables before we even sat down at the table.
Take home: sit down to a plate of vegetables BEFORE the meal to increase your beta-carotene foods.
Most times when we mention this antioxidant, people will say “gluta-what?” Glutathione is a prominent antioxidant that has been getting more exposure over the past few years.
It is made in the liver. Glutathione regulates digestion, immune support, and overall health. This nutrient is also a very common antioxidant found in the body and has tremendous roles in keeping us healthy.
Additionally, it protects cells from stress brought on by environmental and dietary triggers. An example of this is the protection of the body from mercury. This protection strengthens the immune system.
High Levels of Glutathione Improve Health
Higher levels of glutathione have been associated with better health in the elderly. Though it is still a mystery as to how glutathione works to delay the aging process.
- Regenerates vitamins C and E
- Helps other antioxidants to work in the body including lutein and zeaxanthin
- Helps the liver to better metabolize toxins
- Helps to improve the excretion of these toxins by the kidneys
- Improves mitochondria function which will make digestion more efficient
Looking at all the functions it performs there is no wonder why this antioxidant deserves a lot of credit for improving health.
How Does Glutathione Become Depleted?
So if you’re low in glutathione chances are will be more likely to get a chronic disease.
Low levels have been related to high alcohol consumption and constant exposure to chemical toxins. These include the following:
- Chemicals found in food
- Beauty and household products we use on a daily basis)
Low levels of glutathione are related to the following conditions:
- Neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Friedreich’s ataxia)
- Pulmonary diseases (COPD, asthma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome)
- Immune and autoimmune diseases (HIV, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Thyroid autoimmune diseases)
- Cardiovascular diseases (hypertension, myocardial infarction, cholesterol oxidation)
- Chronic age-related diseases (cataracts, macular degeneration, hearing impairment, and glaucoma)
- Liver disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- The overall aging process itself
Alcohol intake over the holidays can get out of hand with all the social engagements. So if you are drinking more than 1 to 2 drinks a day you should be concerned about your glutathione levels.
How Much Glutathione Do We Need?
There is no recommended daily intake for glutathione, but maintaining an adequate level is important for the health of all your cells.
One study measured a healthy range of glutathione to be between 440 to 654 mcg/dL in the blood.
Studies done on smokers have found that glutathione foods increase glutathione levels by 16 percent. Cell damage decreased by 29 percent.
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Glutathione?
Improvement in diet can help to raise our glutathione levels. There are a lot of foods that improve your antioxidant status. Foods that are naturally high in glutathione include avocados, spinach, and okra.
Both plant and animal foods contain sulfur. The richest sources include:
- Eggs and meats
- Garlic, onions, leeks, and chives
- Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower)
When given dried broccoli sprouts, diabetic rats increased glutathione levels. This showed that more antioxidants in the diet can lower oxidative stress.
Addition of other nutrients including foods rich in vitamins C, B6, B12, and folate will increase the level of glutathione in the body.
These vitamins are found in oranges, berries. They will also help to promote increased glutathione production in the body.
So add some almonds to your green bean casserole to prevent damage from that sugary dessert.
Meditation Increases Glutathione
Like too much alcohol, chronic stress puts a doozy on the body. It can also severely diminish glutathione levels. Adding stress-reducing activities can help prevent this from happening.
Meditation can increase the level of glutathione in the body. People who meditate had 20% higher glutathione levels.
So maybe take a cue from Deepak Chopra. Use the time after dinner to reflect on what you are thankful for. It could help improve your glutathione levels!
If you are highly deficient it may be beneficial to supplement. One way to maximize glutathione is by supplementing n-acetylcysteine.
However, we recommend getting a micronutrient panel to see what your glutathione levels actually are.
Lutein is 1 of 700 different types of carotenes (carotenoids), which makes it somewhat similar in structure to beta-carotene.
To me, the huge varieties of carotenes in our foods shows just how complex and synergistic our foods are for our health.
Lutein, a dietary antioxidant, may help the brain structure and function. It can reduce inflammation. The macula and other parts of the eye contain high levels of lutein.
High lutein intake is related to reduced rates of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), ocular inflammation, cataract, and more.
The combination of high intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin, another carotene, reduced macular degeneration rates by over 30 percent.
Supplementation of lutein with other carotenes like zeaxanthin has shown improvements in eye health and brain function.
How Much Lutein Do We Need?
While no established RDI for lutein exists, generally speaking, 5 to 10 mg per day appears to be beneficial.
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Lutein?
Some of the best food sources of lutein include kale, spinach, parsley, peas, leafy lettuce, squash, egg yolks, and Brussels sprouts.
Like lutein and beta-carotene, lycopene is part of the carotenoid family. This antioxidant has an abundance of properties. Lutein is fat-soluble. Eating a fat with Lycopene should enhance absorption.
Research involving controlled studies indicate high intakes of lycopene may lower risk of mouth, pharynx, and larynx cancer.
Pesticides are no match for lycopene. They can protect the body from the harm that might come from consuming these toxins.(25)
Like other carotenoids, lycopene is able to help protect the body from cancer. One analysis showed a lower chance of breast cancer when there were higher levels of lycopene in the blood.
How Much Lycopene Do We Need?
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Lycopene?
Fruits contain lycopene. These include tomatoes, pink grapefruit, apricots, red oranges, watermelon, rosehips, and guava. It is what gives these foods that reddish hue.
Lycopene’s power enhances with heat. So cook those tomatoes and grill your grapefruit.
Tomatoes are one fruit that contains lycopene. They have also been scrutinized for their pro-inflammatory effects in some individuals with autoimmune and gut dysfunction. Always be aware of how food affects you when you eat it. If you feel effects from tomatoes you can always opt to eat other lycopene foods.
Selenium is not only a mineral but it is also an antioxidant. Several body processes require this nutrient. It keeps our bodies healthy and thriving. Reproduction, thyroid function, DNA production, and immune function also need this mineral. It functions as an antioxidant in its way to prevent cell damage.
Selenium helps glutathione activate and work in the body. So if you want to pump up your glutathione pump up your selenium intake.
How Much Selenium Do We Need?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of selenium was set by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM). It is 55 micrograms per day for adolescents and adults of all ages.
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Selenium?
The best sources of selenium include grass-fed organ meats and seafood. Muscle meats are also an excellent way to get selenium in your diet. Fish and seafood rank high for selenium content. These include crab, tuna, halibut, shrimp, salmon, clams, and oysters.
This content of selenium in soil varies from location to location. What results is some foods being lower in selenium. So the selenium content of a food can vary widely. The Brassica species of Brazil nuts tend to have fewer amounts of selenium and those with lower levels could have about 10 times less.
Research on selenium has also shown it to be anti-inflammatory in nature in combating innate responses that lead to chronic health conditions. When to comes to improving asthma and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) more research needs to be done.
Worried you may have a selenium deficiency? The best way to know is to get a micronutrient panel.
Vitamin A as an Antioxidant
The nutrient vitamin A is also an antioxidant. There are two forms of vitamin A:
- Preformed vitamin A
- Provitamin A (carotenes)
Preformed vitamin A is active vitamin A. Active vitamin A is called retinol or retinyl palmitate. Carotenes, like beta-carotene, have vitamin A potential but aren’t active vitamin A.
How Much Vitamin A Do We Need?
The RDI for retinol is 800-1200 mcg per day.
Not Everyone Can Convert Beta-Carotene into Preform A
What if a huge percentage of the population can’t effectively convert our carrots (or carotenoids) into the anti-aging type of vitamin A, known as retinol, inside the body? Maybe this is aging people faster. New research finds these gene variations in vitamin A metabolism is quite common.
The Best Sources of Vitamin A
Perhaps, don’t throw out the organ meats from your turkey. They are the best sources of active vitamin A at the table on Thanksgiving.
The body absorbs about 70-90% of retinol. On average, at most, only 3% of carotenes are absorbed.
Retinols trigger surface skin cells to turn over quickly, making way for new cell growth underneath. They slow the breakdown of collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin. Logic would follow that we would want to optimize vitamin A on the inside. Thi is becuase our diet plays a large role in skin health.
However, it is no surprise to anyone reading this that our diets have changed dramatically in the last century, and this has shifted patterns of nutrient intake, including vitamin A.
I invite you to bring yourself back 100 years in time. We ate the food that was available, and didn’t waste much on the table; humans have had times of scarcity more than excess since the dawn of time.
People ate organ meats, liver, fatty fish, and cod liver oil at their tables regularly in the year 1918. Most people now cringe at the idea of the eating these foods.
It turns out that there are some pretty important nutrients in foods like these, including activated vitamin A.
Toxicity of vitamin A can occur at high doses. This is because vitamin A is such a bio-active compound. It is best to get it from naturally from foods.
Don’t worry If liver is not your thing. You can always get a DNA test to see if you are one of those people who can’t convert vitamin A into its active form. A micronutrient test can also determine your vitamin A levels. It is best to work with a medical professional to learn more
Collagen production relies on enough vitamin C . It also helps make L-carnitine, a substance important in energy production, and neurotransmitters. This nutrient also plays a role in making protein. This vitamin is also an important antioxidant.
How Much of Vitamin C Do We Need?
The RDI for vitamin C is 75-120 mg.
Trendy Again for Good Reason: Vitamin C
However, new research is shedding light on conditions that benefit from much more vitamin C than the RDI, such as in cancer.
Exposure to toxins, being overweight, smoking, alcohol, and poor diets may increase the amount of vitamin C your body needs.
Citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, red and green peppers, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and cantaloupe are all great sources of vitamin C in the diet.
The fat-soluble vitamin E may reduce eye damage from the oxidative ravages of diabetes, cataracts, and more. This nutrient in its natural forms also helps regulate genes, and by doing so, is able to help control abnormal cell growth.
Collectively, when people have a high intake of vitamin E-rich foods, research shows a reduction in cardiovascular diseases consistently over time. Foods rich in vitamin E-rich also reduce the risks of most chronic diseases.
How Much Vitamin E Do We Need?
No optimal dosage has yet been established for vitamin E, but the average person is not getting enough. YOUR optimal dose is going to vary from MY optimal dose, depending on exposures to pollutants, toxins, and more.
At least ninety percent of men and women fail to get enough vitamin E in their diet, even at the paltry RDI levels of 20 mg per day. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that as many as 1 in 3 adults with diabetes or metabolic syndrome have vitamin E deficiency.
Two categories of vitamin E are crucial for health: Tocotrienols and Tocopherols.
Tocotrienol-rich foods include paprika, annatto seed, rice bran, palm oil (sustainably harvested) and coconut oil.
Tocotrienols in early research show potential to:
- Increase cancer cell death
- Starve tumors of nutrients
- Decrease the spread of tumors
- Reduce the growth of tumor cells
- Reduce the initiation of cancer
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Vitamin E?
Tocopherol-rich foods include peanut butter, chili powder, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, almonds, and poppy seeds.
Zeaxanthin is an antioxidant that improves eye health. It is similar vitamin E . It also improves the availability of another antioxidant called glutathione. So getting enough zeaxanthin will also help to create more glutathione in your body.
Zeaxanthin increases pigment in the eye lens. Low levels of this pigment put people at risk for vision loss in those over 55 years of age. Known as Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) this condition is often the result of free radicals in the ocular region.
Zeaxanthin prevents AMD by prohibiting blue light from damaging the eye. This compound neutralizes free radicals in the eye retina. Reducing free radicals in the eye lowers the risk of AMD. This has been shown in observational studies of those who have consumed higher intakes of this antioxidant are at a lower risk of getting AMD.
Outcomes from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study over a 26 and 24 year period indicated an association between zeaxanthin and lower risk of advanced AMD.
How Much Zeaxanthin Do You Need?
There is no established RDA, but the research suggests that the consumption of about 6 mg/day of zeaxanthin from fruit and vegetables (compared with less than 2 mg/day) may decrease the risk of advanced AMD.
Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Zeaxanthin?
Foods that contain zeaxanthin include eggs, yellow corn, orange pepper, honeydew (melon), and mango.
Zeaxanthin is the pigment that gives paprika (made from bell peppers), corn, and saffron their hue. Corn and corn products contain this antioxidant.
So where else can you find all of these wonderful antioxidants?
Aside from fruits and vegetables spices are also rich with antioxidants.
Spice Up Your Turkey Day and Holiday Season
Spices not only flavor your food but can pump up your antioxidant intake. Here are some spices to add to your Turkey day dinner.
Cinnamon has antioxidants, along with nutrients manganese, fiber, and calcium. Add this to veggies for extra anti-inflammatory properties, help with digestion, and help your bones.
Cinnamon is not just for fruit and baked goods. Add it to your veggies like sweet potatoes and squash to give it a natural sweetness without all the sugar.
Ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps support digestion and keeps you healthy by pumping up your immune system.
Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties, manganese, B6, vitamin C, selenium, and fiber. These nutrients support immune health to prevent colds and keep you healthy.
Cumin has iron, calcium, magnesium, B1, and phosphorus. It helps with immunity and digestion.
Basil is a great herb to cook with. It offers vitamin K, manganese, and copper. These nutrients will help with blood clotting, thyroid function, calcium absorption, and metabolism of fats and carbs. Use it in sauces, stews, bakes, and sautés.
Recipes with A Dose of Antioxidants
Use veggies and spices in your holiday dishes for an extra dose of antioxidants. Here are some recipe ideas:
Try this Crustless Pumpkin Pie recipe for a dairy-free, gluten-free dessert with no added sugar. It features pumpkin which is a high source of beta-carotene.
Cauliflower is rich in glutathione and butternut squash contains beta-carotene so you’re getting a double dose of nutrients that will help your body thrive.
Broccoli Rabe is a bitter-tasting green. It is not traditionally associated with the holidays. Start a new tradition with this veggie. For a dose of vitamin A and C as well as glutathione add this to your holiday dinner. This recipe features lemon, onion, and chili flakes. If you are not into spice you can hold the chili.