Antioxidants and antioxidant supplements have become the superheroes of the nutritional world, thanks to their ability to fight free radicals that threaten the health of your cells. There’s no doubt that antioxidants play an important role in health. After all, you’re exposed to a wealth of environmental factors that wreak havoc with cells including environmental pollutants, pesticides, and chemicals in foods and personal care products. That’s why antioxidants have become a “buzzword” used by food and supplement manufacturers to convince shoppers that what they offer is healthy. On the other hand, just because a food contains added antioxidants doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy choice. Here are some other common myths about antioxidants you shouldn’t buy into.
Antioxidant Myth: Antioxidant Supplements Offer Benefits Similar to Those in Antioxidant-Rich Foods
Antioxidant supplements don’t seem to have the same health benefits as those you get naturally from antioxidant-rich foods. In fact, some studies show they may be harmful. One study showed that supplementing with vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin, increased overall mortality in older people.
Another study found that smokers who took supplemental beta-carotene and vitamin E had a greater risk for lung cancer than those that didn’t. The fact that these studies focused on groups at higher risk like smokers and the elderly may partially explain the findings but there’s little evidence at this point to show that antioxidant supplements have the same benefits as antioxidants from food sources. Other research looking at antioxidant supplements and the risk of heart disease and cancer have been inconsistent but most have shown no clear benefits.
Why have studies looking at antioxidant supplements to prevent disease been so discouraging? When you get antioxidants from food sources, you get a complex array of natural antioxidants and other chemicals that work synergistically. Taking an isolated supplement can’t replicate this and, in fact, may be harmful.
Myth: Superfruits Are Your Best Source of Antioxidants
Superfruits is a term coined by the food industry. A number of common fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants although they don’t fall into the superfruit category. Scientists use the ORAC scale to measure the antioxidant capacity of foods. Although this is an artificial measurement done in a laboratory that doesn’t always replicate antioxidant activity in the human body, it’s the best measurement currently available to measure antioxidant activity.
Based on this, common foods like red beans, wild blueberries, pinto beans, and artichoke hearts top the list of antioxidant-rich foods. Most deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables are a good source of antioxidants. That means you don’t have to buy the latest, overpriced superfruit to get the benefits.
Antioxidant Myth: Fruits and Vegetables Are the Only Good Sources of Antioxidants
Fruits and vegetables are certainly rich in antioxidants but they aren’t the only source. Many common spices, whole grains, cocoa powder, tea, coffee and nuts are high in antioxidants, and getting antioxidants from a diversity of sources is best from a health standpoint.
Myth: Antioxidants Fight Cancer
In a healthy person without cancer, antioxidants fight free radical damage that can damage DNA and potentially lead to cancer. The story could be entirely different for people who already have cancer or cells that are predisposed to becoming cancerous.
According to well-known researcher James Watson who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the double-helical structure of DNA, too many antioxidants may shorten the life of people who have cancer. That’s because some cancer treatments stop cancer growth by generating free radicals. It’s these free radicals that damage and destroy cancerous cells. This means the same antioxidants that protect cells and their DNA against damage may have the opposite effect for cells that are already cancerous.
Antioxidant Myth: The Best Time to Get Antioxidants is Before a Workout
Even though exercise induces a significant amount of free radical damage, some of which may contribute to muscle soreness, oxidative stress may actually be beneficial in an exercise setting. Research suggests that antioxidants could reduce some of the beneficial effects of exercise including the increase in insulin sensitivity that makes a workout so beneficial.
When you exercise, your body naturally strengthens its defenses against oxidative stress. If you get large quantities of antioxidants from supplements, you block this adaptive response and may reduce some of the benefits of working out. That’s why it’s best to get antioxidants naturally through diet – not supplements.
The Bottom Line?
Get your antioxidants through diet – and don’t think you have to buy into the latest superfruits to get the benefits. Enjoy a diversity of whole, antioxidant-rich foods instead.
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