Continuing with my series devoted to uncovering the truth in health trends, today I am going to discuss a common feature of food advertisements. Antioxidants are compounds that delay some types of cell damage, which is why they are portrayed as healthy in certain food ads. Foods with antioxidants are also marketed to prevent disease, like in this Fitness Magazine article about healthy eating:
Although this sounds good when making a smoothie purchase, knowing the facts about antioxidants is imperative to truly understanding what benefits you are reaping when potentially paying extra for food containing antioxidants. Does a diet high in antioxidants truly prevent disease? Read more to find out.
Don’t worry. Everything you thought you knew about antioxidants is not a lie. Vegetables and fruits are major sources of these substances. Research done at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has shown that people maintaining a regular diet high in antioxidants are generally the healthiest population. However, the same research cannot conclude that it is the action of the antioxidants that is preventing disease in the lives of these people. Other factors under consideration are “other components of these foods, other factors in people’s diets, or other lifestyle choices.”
In addition, similar studies showed that antioxidants did not help in the prevention of chronic disease like cancer and heart problems. In fact, high doses of supplements like beta-carotene were actually shown to increase lung cancer risk in smokers, and high doses of vitamin E supplements increased risk of prostate cancer. That being said, it seems the antioxidant consumption follows the theme of “healthy in moderation.” In addition, consuming your daily dose of antioxidants will always be better through eating an apple or some broccoli, as opposed to an artificial supplement.
My next question to explore is this: How exactly do antioxidants prevent cell damage?
When you metabolize food into energy your body can use or when you exercise, unstable molecules called “free radicals” are formed. Free radicals are also present in the environment from sunlight and from air pollution. Free radicals are dangerous because they trigger oxidative stress, which can then cause cell damage. The danger surrounding oxidative stress revolves around a chemical imbalance in the body and a failure to detoxify the effects of free radicals (News Medical). Still confused? Check out this creatively organized video by Active Beat that explains the connection between free radicals, oxidative stress, and the action of antioxidants:
Essentially, antioxidants help counter the harmful effect of oxidative stress due to high free radical levels in the body (hence the name anti-oxidant). Without the counteractive impact of antioxidants, oxidative stress is shown to increase risk of chronic diseases (cancer, heart problems) and age-related diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Macular Degeneration).
Not sure what macular degeneration is? Check out this article here:
Take-away messages from this blog post:
- Antioxidants are not bad. Just get as many from fruit as you can, and don’t overdo it with your vitamin supplements.
- “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be true – scientists aren’t actually sure if it’s specifically antioxidants in “healthy” foods that prevent disease. It could very well be that people who keep high amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diet are much more likely to also exercise regularly, drink less alcohol, and participate in other destructive habits like smoking.
- When you’re at the grocery store and are convinced to purchase something because of a label promising healthy antioxidants (or any other current health trend for that matter), know what you are spending your money on. Shop smart, know your food!
For a complete analysis of antioxidants, check out this NIH page where I got most of my information for this post: