We’ve all probably heard the word antioxidants by now, since they have started to appear on many food and vitamin labels. What are they, and how can they help the immune system?

In order to understand the role of antioxidants in keeping your body healthy, we first need to understand what free radicals are. Free radicals are atoms or molecules with a missing electron which looks to complete itself by scavenging off of other atoms and molecules in the body, particularly the membranes of your cells. If they keep robbing them of electrons, they can weaken and cease to function properly, or even mutate, as in the case of cancer.

The process of the free radicals attacking is called oxidative stress. Antioxidants help prevent the free radicals from attacking. They have spare electrons in their outer rings, so they can give them up easily without being damaged the way your cells are when attacked by free radicals.

Scientists believe oxidative stress is the main cause of aging in the body. Free radicals occur in our body naturally, but they can also be triggered by certain medicines, pollution and cigarette smoke. Just think of how aged many smokers look and you will get an idea of the effects of oxidative stress if it is not prevented in some way.

The easiest way to prevent them is through consuming more foods that are rich in antioxidants. The top 20, according to a comprehensive analysis by the USDA, are:

  1. small red beans
  2. blueberries, wild
  3. red kidney beans
  4. pinto beans
  5. blueberries, cultivated
  6. cranberries
  7. artichokes
  8. blackberries
  9. raisins
  10. raspberries
  11. strawberries
  12. apples, Red Delicious
  13. apples, Granny Smith
  14. pecans
  15. potato, russet, raw
  16. cherry, sweet
  17. plums, black
  18. potato, russet, cooked
  19. black beans
  20. plums, red

As you can see, many of the main sources are from legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Aim for 11 servings per day of fruit and veggies, and try to eat a rainbow. These antioxidant-rich foods are tasty, filling, and could help you feel better and look younger than ever.