Serve Up a Dose of Antioxidants This Thanksgiving

Harvest with pumpkins and squash with words "Don't Forget the Antioxidants This Thanksgiving" | Root Nutrition & Education

This article was a collaboration written 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.   
  • It is the gooey, sticky, decadent white foods we need to watch out for.

Turkey dinner itself is not that bad.

I would even argue Thanksgiving can be good for you.  Turkey, potatoes, vegetables, and cranberries can be pretty balanced. If you make the cranberry sauce with all real fruit, there are no added sugars either.

It is all the add-ons that will make for an expanding waistline 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.

High-calorie meals WITHOUT antioxidants can lead to cell damage, according to work done by the Agricultural Research Service chemist named Richard Prior and colleagues. (1)

This cell damage may lead to diseases like heart disease and cancer.

The biggest worry for some may also be true: weight gain.

We know that the calorie-burning machines, known as the mitochondria, respond poorly to oxidative stress.

How do antioxidants protect from the stress of excess?

Continuous intake of low nutrient and high sugar foods will make the body produce free radicals. These unstable molecules are formed 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(2).

Antioxidants are substances that help to protect cells from oxidation and improve health. So even if you are stressing about your Turkey Day dinner, eating well at this special occasion can help improve your overall health. (2)

Antioxidants are found in nutrients including vitamins and minerals. They consist of the following: beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E.(3)


Beta-carotene is a very important antioxidant. It is distinguished by its orange-yellow pigment found in colorful fruits and vegetables. The pigment is fat-soluble which means it is more readily absorbed when consumed with foods that are fats like avocado or cold pressed olive oil. (4)

Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant because it prevents cells and tissues from being damaged by stress (5)

Studies on human diseases found that cancer risk was greatly reduced in stomach, lung, prostate, breast, head, and neck cancers with increased beta carotene intake. (6)

Cancer progression was also shown to slow after consuming at least five servings of green, orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables. (5)  The combination of beta-carotene along with other antioxidants found in these same fruits and vegetables were shown to decrease cancer risks. (5)

How Much Beta Carotene Do We Need?

Just 3 to 6 mg of beta carotene is will lower your chances of getting a chronic disease.(6)  This can be found in only 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?

Beta-carotene is the highest in orange, yellow, and red colored foods and I’m not talking about Mac & Cheese. Beta-carotene is most common in carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, mango, and apricots (7)

The best thing: you only need 1 serving (½ a cup) a day to improve your antioxidant levels. (5)

Growing up, we always had lots of pre-meal vegetable appetizers.  I remember feeling full of vegetables before we even sat down to 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.

Glutathione is made in the liver and helps to regulate digestion, immune support, and overall health.  

Glutathione is a very common antioxidant in the body and has tremendous roles in keeping us healthy.(8).

Like other antioxidants, it protects cells from stress brought on by environmental and dietary triggers.(9) An example of this is the protection of the body from mercury. This protection strengthens the immune system.

Higher levels of glutathione have been associated with better health in the elderly but it is still a mystery as to how glutathione works to delay the aging process. (9)

  • Glutathione also has been found to help regenerate vitamins C and E (10)
  • Helps other  antioxidants to work in the body including lutein and zeaxanthin(10)
  • Helps the liver to better metabolize toxins and also helps to improve the excretion of these toxins by the kidneys. (10)
  • Improves mitochondria function which will make digestion more efficient(10)

Looking at all the functions it performs there is no wonder why this antioxidant deserves a lot of credit for improving health.

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:(10)

  • Pesticides
  • Chemicals found in food
  • Beauty and household products we use on a daily basis)

Low levels of glutathione are related to the following conditions:(10)

  • 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 diseases (HIV, autoimmune diseases such as 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 established recommended daily intake for glutathione, however, 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.(11)

Studies done on smokers have found that glutathione foods increase glutathione levels by 16 percent. Cell damage was also lowered by 29 percent.(12)

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 you can incorporate this holiday that will help improve your antioxidant status. Foods that are naturally high in glutathione are include avocados, spinach, and okra.(13)

Foods that are rich in sulfur will naturally increase levels of this antioxidant in the body.(14) because glutathione is made up of molecules that contain sulfur.(15)

Sulfur is found in both plant and animal foods. The richest sources include

  • Eggs and meats(16)
  • Garlic, onions, leeks, and chives(16)
  • Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower(17)

When given dried broccoli sprouts, diabetic rats increased glutathione levels showing how more antioxidants in the diet can lower oxidative stress. (18)

Addition of other nutrients including foods rich in vitamins C, B6, B12, and folate will increase the level of glutathione in the body.(19)

These vitamins are found in oranges, berries, and 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.

Like too much alcohol, chronic stress puts a doozy on the body and can severely diminish glutathione levels. Adding stress-reducing activities can help prevent this from happening.

Meditation has been shown to increase the presence of this antioxidant. Those who practice this technique have been shown to have 20 percent higher levels of glutathione (12)

So maybe take a cue from Deepak Chopra and 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 brain structure and function by serving to potently reduce inflammation.(20Lutein is found in very high levels in the macula of the eye and other areas of the eye.

High lutein intake is related to reduced rates of  age-related macular degeneration (AMD), ocular inflammation, cataract, and more.(21)

The combination of high intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin, another carotene, reduced macular degeneration rates by over 30 percent.(22)

Sadly, westernized countries are eating less lutein than ever.(22)

Supplementation of lutein with other carotenes like zeaxanthin have shown improvements in eye health and even improvements in brain function (23)

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.(22)

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.(22)


Like lutein and beta-carotene, lycopene is part of the carotenoid family. This antioxidant has an abundance of properties. Lutein is fat-soluble and should be eaten with fat to enhance the absorption.

Research involving controlled studies indicate high intakes of lycopene may decrease the chances of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx. (24)

Pesticides are no match for lycopene and 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 [R].

How Much Lycopene Do We Need?

There is no RDA for lycopene but on average it is being consumed in the amount of almost 7 to 10.5 mg per day for men and women are having about 6 to 10 mg per day.(26) The question of how much we should be consuming is found in research which says about 8 to 21 mg per day is good for improving health.(27)

Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Lycopene?

Lycopene is found in fruits such as tomatoes, pink grapefruit, apricots, red oranges, watermelon, rosehips, and guava. It is what gives these foods that reddish hue.(28)

Lycopene has been shown to increase its potency when it is cooked so heat up those tomatoes or grill your grapefruit.(29)

Tomatoes are one fruit that contains lycopene but have also been scrutinized for its 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. It is needed for several body processes to keep our bodies healthy and thriving. It is needed for reproduction, thyroid function, DNA production, and immune support. It functions as an antioxidant in its way to prevent cell damage.(30)

Selenium has been found to help glutathione activate and work in the body.(31)  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 is set by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) at 55 micrograms per day for adolescents and adults of all ages.(32)

Often individuals with thyroid conditions or those with gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s are deficient in selenium. (33). Those who are highly stressed are also at risk for deficiency (34)

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.

The problem with selenium is that the content found in soil varies from location to location. So even though you have a brazil nut it could depend on how it is harvested. The Brassica species tend to have fewer amounts of selenium and those with lower levels could have about 10 times less.(35)

Research on selenium has also shown it to be anti-inflammatory nature in combating innate responses that lead to chronic health conditions.(36) However, more research needs to be done to see if there is any benefit in supplementing selenium to improve disorders like asthma and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).(37)

Worried you may have a selenium deficiency? The best way to know is to get a micronutrient panel.

Vitamin A

How Much Vitamin A Do We Need?

The RDI for retinol is 800-1200 mcg per day.

Where Can You Find the Best Sources of Vitamin 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 are quite common.(38)

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. (39)

Carotenes, like beta-carotene, have vitamin A potential but aren’t active vitamin A.

Active vitamin A is called retinol or retinyl palmitate.

Consider this fact: about 70-90% of retinol, or active vitamin A, is absorbed, but even under optimal circumstances, only 3% or less of carotenes are absorbed. This is an average.  

Retinols work by triggering surface skin cells to turn over quickly, making way for new cell growth underneath. They also slow down 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, as dermal production begins with the precursors that come from our diet.

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 majority of these foods.

It turns out that there are some pretty important nutrients in foods like these, including activated vitamin A.   

Since vitamin A is such a bio-active compound, toxicity can occur at high doses, so is best from naturally sourced types of foods.  But if you cringe at the thought of this, you can always get gene tested, blood level tested, and supplement accordingly under careful observation of your practitioner.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C: it’s trendy again, but for good reason.

Vitamin C is required for making collagen.  It also helps make L-carnitine, a substance important in energy production, and neurotransmitters. Vitamin C is involved in making protein in the body.  Vitamin C is also an important antioxidant.

The RDI for vitamin C is 75-120 mg. (40)

However, new research is shedding light on conditions that benefit from much more vitamin C than the RDI, such as in cancer. (41)

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.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E may reduce eye damage from the oxidative ravages of diabetes, cataracts, and more.(42) Vitamin E in its natural forms also help 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. Vitamin E-rich foods also reduce risks of most chronic diseases.(43)

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 paultry RDI levels of 20 mg per day [R]. 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. (44)

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:(45)

  • Increase cancer cell death
  • Starve tumors of nutrients
  • Reduce the spread of tumors
  • Reduce the growth of tumor cells
  • Reduce the initiation of cancer

Tocopherol-rich foods include peanut butter, chili powder, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, almonds, and poppy seeds.


Zeaxanthin is an antioxidant that improves eye health. This substance has been shown to have similar effects as vitamin E predominantly. It also improves the availability of another antioxidant called glutathione. So getting enough zeaxanthin will also help to create more glutathione in your body [R].

Like lutein, zeaxanthin was found to increase pigment in the eye lens.(46, 47) Lower levels of this pigment put individuals 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.(48)

Zeaxanthin prevents AMD by prohibiting blue light from damaging the eye. This compound has been shown to neutralize free radicals found in the retina thus lowering the risk of AMD.(49) 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.(50) 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. (51)

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.(52)

Where Can You Find Zeaxanthin?

Foods that contain zeaxanthin include eggs, yellow corn, orange pepper, honeydew (melon), and mango.(7)

Zeaxanthin it is the pigment that gives paprika (made from bell peppers), corn, and saffron its hue.(53). This antioxidant is found mostly in corn and corn products.(54)

Similar to lycopene, zeaxanthin has a better bioavailability when it is chopped and cooked.(55) Like with beta-carotene, pairing zeaxanthin with a fat food will help to improve the bioavailability.(4)

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 your veggies to get extra anti-inflammatory properties, help with digestion, and help your bones.

Cinnamon can be added to more than just 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.

Ginger tastes great and makes vegetables yummy. They are used in sauces, stir-fries, sauté’s, dressings, and baking.


Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties, manganese, B6, vitamin C, selenium, and fiber. These nutrients support immune health to prevent colds and keep you healthy.

They also aid in digestion, collagen promotion for great looking skin, and thyroid function to make sure your hormones are in check.

Garlic can be used in everything from soups and stews, to dressings sautés, and salads.


Cumin has iron, calcium, magnesium, B1, and phosphorus. It helps with immunity and digestion.

It is typically used in curry and taco seasoning. I like to add it to everything from eggs to salad dressings.


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.

Butternut squash is a holiday favorite. Try this easy recipe that combines cauliflower and the antioxidant power of garlic.

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.

This cauliflower recipe contains an antioxidant-rich cauliflower with the health-promoting benefits of parsley and garlic. Try it as a side at your holiday feast.

Broccoli Rabe is a bitter-tasting green that is not traditionally associated with the holidays. You can start a new tradition by adding this veggie for optimal nutrition since it is rich in vitamin A and C as well as glutathione. This recipe features lemon, onion, and chili flakes. If you are not into spice you can hold the chili.

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