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“Antioxidants” is a buzzword slapped on many food labels now, but what exactly are they and why do we need them?

Antioxidants help protect our cells from damage by inhibiting oxidation, a chemical reaction that may yield free radicals: dangerous-sounding substances that are unstable molecules in the body. Free radicals can attack healthy cells, making them vulnerable to disease and certain cancers. These molecules are produced by normal activities, like eating, as well as environmental exposure to radiation or tobacco smoke. Antioxidants counteract these effects.

A diet rich in antioxidants can reduce your chances of getting a cold or other illness. Some of the most familiar antioxidants include vitamins C and E, along with lycopene and beta-carotene, and are found in many foods. Chances are you’re already consuming many antioxidants without even knowing it.

The best way to get antioxidants is by eating whole foods, rather than through supplements. Here are some inexpensive, easy-to-carry foods that will help your body replenish its antioxidant warrior stash:

  • Berries—Add seasonal berries to low-fat yogurt or oatmeal for a power parfait.
  • Beans—Canned, low-sodium kidney, pinto, and black beans are cheap and easy to cook in a chili, as taco filling, or to replace any meat.
  • Vegetables—Spinach and kale are great steamed, sautéed, or raw. Try a baked sweet potato instead of fries.
  • Fruits—Dip pretzels or pita in fresh avocado guacamole or tomato salsa. Enjoy apples and pears with their peels on.
  • Dark chocolate—Enjoy a bar with 60 percent or more cacao content for maximum benefits.
  • Herbs—Sprinkle cinnamon, cloves, ginger, or dried oregano to season a meal.
  • Nuts—Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and pecans provide plenty of antioxidants, plus healthy fats and protein. Combine them with dried cranberries and prunes for a trail mix that packs a potent punch.

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Amber Gibson is a senior studying broadcast journalism and business at Northwestern University, and is also a model and actress.