Six ways to eat more antioxidants for better muscle mass and brain health

Sam Rice
Sam: 'Higher intakes of antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes are associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality' - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

We hear a lot about the benefits of antioxidants in our beauty products and our food, but why are they good for us and how can we cram more into our diet? Antioxidants are molecules that combat free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage the body’s cells. Some antioxidants – compounds in food like vitamins C and E, that fight oxidative damage to cells in the body – can protect brain health by preventing neurodegeneration, and because of their anti-inflammatory properties they can also reduce tissue damage.

We need lots of these antioxidants as we age. Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, can start as early as your 30s, with muscle mass decreasing up to 8 per cent per decade, and it’s understood that we also peak cognitively around the age of 30. To ward off this decline, a new study from Japan suggests that antioxidants may have a role to play, by maintaining muscle mass and cognitive function as we age.

What’s more, higher intakes of antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes are associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, so including more of them in our diet is a nutritional no-brainer. Here are six tasty ways to make sure you are getting enough.

Boost your vitamin C with this smoothie

Vitamin C’s crucial role in supporting immunity is well-known, but it’s also a potent antioxidant. The body cannot store vitamin C so it’s important to have some daily. Get ahead with my vitamin C-rich “sunshine smoothie” for breakfast which provides your total vitamin C requirement for the day (the reference nutrient intake, or RNI, in the UK is 40mg/day) along with useful amounts of the antioxidants vitamin E and copper.

Place 1 tsp mixed seeds, 4 almonds and 1 tbsp oats into a blender and whizz for 20 seconds. Add 1 small banana, 100g frozen mango, 1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger, the juice of an orange, a squeeze of lemon juice, 1 tsp honey (optional), 100ml water and a few ice cubes. Blend on high until smooth and creamy.

Get more vitamin E with this easy lunch

Brilliant for skin and vision, the antioxidant properties of vitamin E also help protect against a range of conditions from cardiovascular disease to cancer. Studies have also shown that a good supply of dietary vitamin E (the RNI is 4mg/day for men and 3mg/day for women) is essential for maintaining muscle health. Good sources include trout, prawns, olive oil, spinach, avocados, nuts and seeds.

Prawns and avocado on toast
Prawns and avocados are high in vitamin E - Getty

You can make a delicious vitamin E-rich lunch by toasting some seedy bread and mashing ripe avocado on top. In a bowl, mix a handful of cooked prawns with 1 tbsp of Greek yogurt, a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped spring onions. Spread the mixture on the avocado toast and top with a good grind of black pepper.

Copper-boosting sweet treats

If you aren’t a big fan of organ meats, and lobster and oysters are out of your price range, you may struggle to get enough copper from your diet – indeed, it’s estimated that half the UK population might not be eating the recommended 1.2mg per day. Fortunately, other good sources of this essential mineral and antioxidant include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and, happily, dark chocolate.

To make a copper-rich snack that also delivers a hit of fibre, try making these chocolate-drizzled stuffed dates. Taking pitted Medjool dates, carefully fill each split date with a spoonful of nut butter and sprinkle over a few mixed seeds before gently pinching back together. Drizzle each with a little melted dark chocolate. These will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few weeks. Two dates contain around one-fifth of your daily copper dose.

Spicy seed mix for more zinc

Zinc is a micronutrient that not only has antioxidant properties but also an anti-inflammatory effect. Chronic inflammation is a condition linked to a higher disease risk as we age and considering nearly 30 per cent of the elderly population is zinc-deficient, this is one mineral we need to keep an eye on. The RNI per day in the UK is 9.5mg for men and 7mg for women and the key sources are meat, fish and seafood, so it can be tricky to get enough on a plant-based diet.

Thankfully, seeds are an excellent plant source of zinc – especially sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Make a spicy seed mix for snacking on, or to sprinkle on savoury toasts, soups and salads, by toasting up 100g of mixed seeds in a dry frying pan and combining them with a mixture of 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp coriander, ½ tsp hot chilli powder and a little salt. These will keep for 2-3 weeks in an airtight jar. Two tbsp provides around 2mg of zinc.

Get a selenium energy boost

Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of the antioxidant selenium, so they are worth having on hand as a healthy snack. But don’t go mad; each nut contains up to 95μg and with the RNI for selenium being 75μg a day for men and 60μg day for women, just one a day is enough. Other sources of selenium include fish, meat and eggs.

Make some Brazil-based energy balls by placing 200g pitted dates, 2 tbsp orange juice, 1 tsp orange zest, 6 chopped Brazil nuts, 2 tbsp ground almonds and a pinch of salt in a food processor and whizz up to form a dough. Roll into 10-12 evenly sized balls, coat with a little unsweetened dark cocoa powder and place in an airtight container in the fridge. Will keep for up to a week.

Roasted colourful veg for polyphenols

Roasted veg
'Eat the rainbow' by making roasted colourful veg as a side dish - Getty

A polyphenol may sound like something you would see the doctor about but rest assured, this family of plant compounds, which includes flavonoids, lignans, anthocyanins and resveratrol, are powerful antioxidants. Eating a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables is the best way to ensure you are getting enough because the antioxidants are largely found in the pigments that give the plants their colour.

A tasty way to “eat the rainbow” is with a side dish of roasted vegetables. Pick your favourite ones in a range of hues – different coloured peppers, courgettes, aubergines, carrots, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes – then drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in the oven at 180C fan for 30-40 minutes, stirring halfway through.