When we were little we were always told to eat our fruits and veggies, but we didn’t really know why. It wasn’t til we were older that we understood that they contain various micronutrients to benefit our immune system and an overall healthy life. A less appreciated health benefit that hasn’t become popular till recent years is the presence of compounds called antioxidants. In layman’s terms, antioxidants prevent the oxidation of cells (hence the name).
While oxygen is one of the most essential components for living, it is also a double edged sword – oxygen is a highly reactive atom that is capable of becoming part of potentially damaging molecules commonly called “free radicals” (1). Free radicals attack healthy cells in the body and can lead to a myriad of different diseases from cardiovascular disease to cancer. Some of the most popular and abundant antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E. A less appreciated but just as important antioxidant found in fruits and veggies are called anthocyanins (pronounced an-tho-si-a-nin), a compound that gives fruits, veggies, and beans their dark hues.
The Benefits of Anthocyanins
There are many aspects to anthocyanins’ role in the body that remain a mystery, such as bioactivity, uptake, absorption, bioavailability, and distribution in the tissues. But laboratory research as well as studies in animals and humans have suggested that anthocyanins may play important roles in helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cognitive decline, and cancer. The role of anthocyanins in the prevention of these diseases has been linked to their antioxidant properties, but research now suggests that anthocyanins’ health benefits likely result from unidentified chemical properties in addition to their antioxidant capacity (2).
When it comes to your heart, you never want it working at less than 100%. Along with a balanced diet anthocyanins have been shown to contribute to the improvement of many cardiovascular risk factors including the lowering of LDL cholesterol, proper oxidation of fat cells and a normal metabolism.
By lowering the amount of oxidative stress we put on our body anthocyanins have been shown in promising research to even lower the risk of many types of cancer. According to a laboratory study published in 2010 in Phytotherapy Research, anthocyanins extracted from blueberries were shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.
While another study that used a variety of cancer cells have indicated that anthocyanins not only act as antioxidants, they also activate detoxifying enzymes; prevent cancer cell proliferation; induce cancer cell death (apoptosis); have anti-inflammatory effects; have antiangiogenesis effects (ie, they inhibit the formation of new blood vessels that encourage tumor growth); prevent cancer cell invasion; and induce differentiation (the more differentiated the cancer cell, the less likely it is to grow and spread) (2).
Where Can I Get Anthocyanins?
Supplements do exist that provide anthocyanins, including Grape Seed Extract, but the most abundant source of this antioxidant we get in our diet should be from natural sources. In general, the darker a fruit or vegetable, the more health benefits it contains. Anthocyanins are no exception, as they are the main pigment in fruits and veggies that make them red, purple and black.
That being said, when choosing your fruits and veggies, choose the purple cabbage over the white, romaine lettuce over iceberg, red onions over yellow, concord grapes over Niagara, black beans over pinto (or get both if you’re at Chipotle, they won’t charge extra) and blackberries over red raspberries.
Those are just a few examples but apply to most if not all fruits and veggies. Other sources of anthocyanins to look out for are: Eggplant, black currant, plums, asparagus, cranberries, bananas (surprisingly, due to their light colors), pomegranates, red fleshed peaches, and cherries (3).
Take Home Message
All those years ago when your parents were making you eat foods like beans and asparagus, it turns out they were onto something! The daily recommended intake for an average person is about two cups of fruit a day, and 5 cups of vegetables. Of course moderation is key, don’t forget that many fruits contain a large amount of natural sugar, which can easily add up the calories which is more important if you are trying to lose weight.
But of course you don’t want to cut them out completely, find the right balance that is right for you to make sure you get the most antioxidant benefits without loading up on extra sugar and calories. When it comes to vegetables, the more the merrier usually applies, especially in the case of dark leafy veggies which have minimal calories and carbs. In fact many professional bodybuilders who need to get extremely lean don’t even count their vegetables as calories because of their high nutrient density and their ability to full you up without the calories. In the end as long as you’re getting your daily dose of fruit and veggies a long as healthy life will follow!
Thank you for reading and remember, an apple a day keeps the doctor away (but make it a Red Delicious, because they have more anthocyanins than Fuji or Granny Smith)!