Antioxidants are nutrients and other compounds that are known to fight free radicals, which can damage the body's cells. While they’re most recognized for fighting age-related decline, antioxidants can also enhance immune health, and therefore exercise recovery, too.
And since several phytochemicals exist, your best bet is to include a variety of plant foods in your meal plan (especially as part of workout recovery), with a focus on consuming foods with various colors. This helps maximize antioxidant power, tame inflammation, and speed up muscle recovery.
Still, some foods are known to have higher "ORAC" values, meaning they may have a stronger antioxidant capacity in comparison to other foods. Some foods on the higher-ORAC spectrum include spices and herbs such as basil, sage, turmeric, and ginger, as well as produce such as blueberries, peaches, cherries, red peppers, and kale. Other foods with high ORAC values include hazelnuts, pecans, kidney beans, and cocoa powder.
“This only represents the assumed antioxidant value of the single food, and it doesn’t consider how consuming a large variety of whole plant foods can result in antioxidants providing better synergistic benefits,” Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says.
And while protein and complex carbohydrates get more attention when it comes to post-workout recovery fuel, those carbohydrates often come from brightly-colored foods like fruits and vegetables. These foods typically have high ORAC values to boost and promote more efficient repair and regrowth of damaged muscle tissues and fibers.
Why Your Body Needs Antioxidants After Training
“When exercising — especially at a high intensity — we not only create small tears in muscle fibers that need to be repaired, but we also stress out our bones, joints, and cardiorespiratory system," Jones says. "All of the associated cells need optimal repair in order to become stronger and more efficient, as well as to improve fitness level, performance, and training results."
We do need some inflammation to help elicit an immune response in the body so that repair and growth can occur. But the ultimate goal is to limit excessive inflammation and increase accessibility and availability of both nutrients and antioxidants to enhance the post-workout repair process.
This means that not only immediately after a tough workout, but also in the next day or two afterward, your body will need a consistent and sufficient intake of calories, protein, unsaturated fats, and antioxidants to best optimize recovery.
“The antioxidants specifically can fight against excess oxidative damage to cells, and some may also feed the good bacteria in the gut,” Jones says. “Our microbiome has even been shown to positively impact immune function, nutrient usage, and — indirectly — performance, so this is where high variety comes in as being most beneficial to best support cells both directly and indirectly."
Which Antioxidants Are Best for Post-Workout Recovery?
“Vitamins and minerals contain antioxidants, including beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, but there are actually thousands of antioxidant compounds,” Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of ChampagneNutrition® and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook, says.
For example, all of the polyphenols — a large class of phytochemical antioxidants and one of the most researched groups showing potential for enhanced recovery from exercise — found in tea, coffee, berries, and chocolate are on the list, too.
“They've got flavonols, proanthocyanidins, and anthocyanins, among many other antioxidants,” Hultin says.
Polyphenols, in particular, help to support normal bone growth and remodeling by limiting bone loss, which, according to research, can accelerate due to oxidative stress.
“Polyphenols may also activate mineralization processes, which can be helpful, as exercise is a trigger for bone mineralization," Jones says. "Plus, high training volume leads to bone nutrient depletion (such as with the mineral calcium) and excess oxidation, in particular."
Antioxidants have been linked to many benefits in the body, including bone health, where both polyphenols and anthocyanins (found in purple foods like berries, eggplant skin, red cabbage, and cherries) have been shown to help lower the risk of osteoporosis or inflammatory bone disease.
The Best Food Sources of Antioxidants to Include as Part of Recovery Fuel
Foods with those high ORAC values are often associated with a bright pigmentation and hue, and are the most useful when integrated into post-training fuel. Use color as a guide when determining antioxidant quality, if you don't have the ability to measure or look up ORAC scores.
Look to brightly-colored fruits and vegetables such as starchy vegetables, berries, artichokes, and dark chocolate or cocoa as workout recovery dietary staples.
“The high level of dietary nitrates in beets works to dilate blood vessels, thereby speeding the delivery of nutrients and antioxidants to body cells, as well as the removal of waste,” Jones adds.
According to Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, blueberries (as well as most berries) have a high ORAC value — between 4,600 and 9,800 — depending on whether they are grown wild or farmed. So, use them as a topping for yogurt, oatmeal, or salads, or as an ingredient for homemade oat or granola energy bars, protein truffles, and bites.
A few more to note, courtesy of Best: kale, with an ORAC value of 1,700, and red cabbage, with an ORAC value of 2,496. But what do these numbers mean, exactly?
“To put these numbers into perspective, the ORAC value of a standard donut is 160, and the body can actually process between 3,000 and 5,000 ORAC (antioxidants) a day,” Best says.
So, don’t hold back on spicing up your recovery meals and snacks with some new ingredients.
“For example, black pepper increases absorption and use of the curcumin in turmeric, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory that many often use to support joint health,” Jones says.
Turmeric has an ORAC value of 102,700 per 100 grams, for reference. A few other antioxidant-rich spices and herbs with high ORAC scores per 100 grams include cloves and ginger, with 314,446 and 28,881 ORAC values, respectively, among others.
How to Maximize Antioxidant Supply With Recovery Fuel
“Antioxidants help 'quench' free radicals caused by exercise, so consuming balanced, plant-based snacks pre- and post-training can be a helpful strategy for helping the body heal from the stress of exercise,” Hultin says. “Additionally, athletes should definitely meet their needs for vitamins C and E, and may also benefit from other antioxidants found in fruits, veggies, and other plant foods.”
You can find antioxidants like vitamin C in a variety of foods, including sweet red peppers (95 milligrams in 1/2 cup), an orange (70 milligrams in a medium orange), and broccoli (51 milligrams in 1/2 cup).
Antioxidant vitamin E is most available in hazelnuts (4.3 milligrams per ounce), kiwi (1.1 milligrams in 1 medium kiwi), and tomato (0.7 milligrams in 1 medium tomato). All of these have other antioxidants, too.
“For example, red peppers and tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene (found in red-colored foods), and oranges contain carotenoids and flavonoids,” Hultin explains.
Plus, some antioxidants are better absorbed in the presence of fat, so consider pairing foods that are rich in fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A and E, with a food that contains healthy fat, such as olive oil or avocado. For example, you can combine carrots (containing beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body) or broccoli (a source of vitamin E) with hummus for quick, antioxidant-rich recovery snacks.
You can also maximize the benefits of antioxidant lycopene — another fat-soluble nutrient — by enjoying a post-workout dinner that pairs whole grain pasta with red sauce, the latter being a rich source of lycopene. (And don’t forget to include a healthy fat like olive oil for optimal absorption.)
Bonus? There's also a good dose of antioxidants and polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil as well, so don’t skimp on drizzling some on top for moisture, healthy fats, and extra antioxidants.