Anti-aging Tactic #3: Eat More Plant-Based Foods that May Fend Off Chronic Diseases

Surprising options came out of an analysis of the antioxidant content of more than 3,100 food products

by Sara Reistad-Long
fork fruits image
Photograph: Illustrated by Bryan Stauffer

Humans have immune systems, and so, in a manner of speaking, do plants: Collectively, members of the plant kingdom contain thousands and thousands of different types of antioxidants, molecules that help organisms repair damage caused by oxygen by-products. These defense mechanisms get passed along to people who eat antioxidant-packed foods, which is why the right diet can improve your ability to fight off heart disease and cancer, the two top killers of American women. Fortunately, you don’t have to know the name of each micronutrient. “Because antioxidants have a common goal, there’s a lot of overlap in how they work,” says David Heber, MD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. This means that as long as you eat a range of foods, you don’t need to focus on meeting, say, a quota for resver-atrol (the component in red wine that’s thought to slow aging). The real key is to figure out which foods are, broadly speaking, good sources. And that part has gotten considerably easier.

Monica Carlsen, a researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, was part of a team that created the most comprehensive list to date of the number of antioxidants in 100-gram (roughly 3.5-ounce) servings of foods from around the globe. Here, we’ve pulled together a range of high scorers available to Americans that you can add to your own menu for a powerful anti-aging boost.

In general, on the antioxidant scale, fruits beat out vegetables by far. (The deep, bright colors more common in fruits are a sign of high antioxidant content.) Among the fruits, berries rated highest. This is largely due to their high concentration of anthocyanins, a class of antioxidant thought to be especially effective in helping to reduce inflammation, among other benefits.

Best bets include
Goji berries (organic dried)

Blackberries (fresh)

Sweet cherries (dried; fresh cherries don’t rank nearly as high)

Cranberries (fresh) 

Raspberries (fresh)

Strawberries (fresh)


Plums (Black Diamond brand)

Sour cherries (canned) 

Blueberries (canned) 

These are among the top antioxidant scorers, a fact that jibes with other studies showing that just a teaspoon of ground cinnamon or cloves has about the same level of antioxidants as a serving of pomegranate juice, fresh blueberries or cranberries.

Best bets include
Cloves (dried and ground)

Oregano (dried)

Ginger (dried and ground)

Cinnamon (dried and ground)

Turmeric (dried and ground)

Basil (dried)

Mustard seed, yellow (ground)

Paprika (dried and ground)

Chile (dried and ground)

Black pepper (dried and ground)

Drinks can be potent sources of antioxidants.

Best bets include
Coffee, espresso

Red wine

Pomegranate juice

Tomato juice

With some nuts, keeping the thin skin on is critical to preserving anti-oxidant properties. Many whole nuts are packaged with the skin on, but to be totally sure you’re getting the health payoff, buy unshelled nuts and do your own cracking.

Best bets include
Walnuts (skin on)

Pecans (skin on)


Flaxseed (ground)

The veggies with the most anti-oxidants tend to be highly colored.

Best bets include

Red cabbage

Red peppers (cooked)

Green peppers (cooked)

Spinach (frozen)

Next: Be Healthy in 20 Years: Five Easy Ways to Fill Meals with Antioxidants

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First published in the May 2012 issue

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