Antioxidants and Omega-3 Fats: Functional Foods to Boost Health

By Hilary Parker, WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD Looking for your meal ticket to health?  You might be wise to go for some omega-3 fatty acids served up with a side of antioxidants. The good news is, it can be as tasty as it is healthy — think grilled salmon and vegetables, drizzled with olive oil and accompanied by a nice glass of red wine. “People who eat a plant-based diet are the healthiest people on the planet,” says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RA, LD, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. “Eat at least five cups of fruits and vegetables every day.  Use olive oil instead of butter. Eat plenty of seafood. These are nutrition recommendations that won’t change.” What is changing is our understanding of how nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants are responsible for the health-promoting properties of functional foods — and what you can do to maximize their effectiveness. Antioxidants: Vitamins, Flavonoids, and Minerals Plant foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are your best bet to obtain disease-fighting antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, the mineral selenium, and flavonoids. The protective benefits of antioxidants seem to stem from their ability to protect your cells from dangerous free radicals, which you are exposed to as the result of natural processes and pollutants in the environment. When it comes to cancer-fighting properties of the nutrients in a balanced diet, the whole may be more than the sum of its parts. Many scientists now believe that food synergy, or the way nutrients in the different foods you eat interact with one another, may be responsible for the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. “An important result of research in recent years is less emphasis on any single nutrient, or even any group of a few nutrients, in preventing cancer, with more support for the way that a balanced, plant-based diet provides a bounty of nutrients and compounds that seem to work together to protect us against cancer,” says Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, and nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. “Research shows that much of the antioxidant power of a healthy plant-based diet comes not from the traditional vitamins we focus on, but from a wide range of phytochemicals … these compounds seem to work best together, not on their own.” The benefits you get from eating a diet rich in functional foods loaded with antioxidants go far beyond fighting cancer. Tallmadge says that people who eat foods rich in antioxidants have many health advantages, including:
  • less cancer
  • lower inflammation levels
  • lower heart disease risk
  • less Alzheimer’s and dementia 
For the most protection, you should try to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, including garlic and onion, tomatoes, watermelon, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, blueberries, carrots, and bell peppers. Beverages like tea, coffee, and red wine also contain antioxidants that may offer protection against many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Omega-3 Fats: Fish Oil for Heart Health Omega-3 fatty acids are some of the promising functional foods when it comes to your heart health.  A landmark 2006 study of the effects of fish on human health demonstrated that a modest intake of fish reduces the risk of dying from a heart attack by a whopping 36%. “There is certainly enough evidence now to indicate that eating fish once or twice per week, choosing from a variety of fish, confers a benefit as strong or stronger than any other food for cardiovascular health,” says the study’s co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, co-director of the Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. The heart-health benefits seem to be greatest with the consumption of two particular omega-3 fatty acids that are found mainly in oily fish — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Choose oily, cold-water fish species like salmon, trout, and herring to get the most omega-3s. What about the mercury in fish?  For most people, it’s more dangerous to avoid eating omega-3 fats than to consume the amount of mercury in most commonly eaten fish species.  The EPA and FDA suggests a limit of 12 ounces (2 average meals) of fish a week for special populations, including women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children. Those groups should avoid fish highest in mercury, such as shark, swordfish, and tilefish.  Fish isn’t the only source of health-boosting omega-3s. You can also find the healthy fats in walnuts, canola oil, and flaxseed.  The omega-3s from plant-based sources, which contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA), may also have cardiovascular benefits, but the evidence is not as strong. Regardless, all functional foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are thought to boost your health in a variety of ways by lessening inflammation levels in your body.  In the last few years, consuming diets rich in omega-3 fats have been touted for reducing the risk of Type-1 diabetes and, they may even improve your mood. Getting the Most from Functional Foods Researchers are now looking into the bioavailability of nutrients to learn how much of the antioxidants and omega-3 fats we eat are available for our bodies to use. For now, here are a few tips for you to get the most out of the functional foods you eat:
  • Try to buy produce that has been picked at full ripeness and maximum color, an indication of the presence of flavonoids.
  • Cook your vegetables in as little water as possible to minimize the amount of nutrients lost in the cooking process.
  • Aim to eat fish one to two times each week, and choose from a variety of species, emphasizing cold-water fish.
  • Make sure you eat fat-soluble antioxidants like lycopene and vitamins A and E, with a little fat, such as olive oil, to help your body absorb the valuable nutrients.