Antioxidants supplements : By Jennifer Nelson, M.S., R.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.

I’m more convinced than ever that we need to give up the knee-jerk reflex that supplements are a nutritionally effective way to prevent disease. Why such a strong statement? The two lead articles in the recent issue of the medical journal “JAMA” show that the antioxidant vitamins C, E and the mineral selenium have no effect on preventing prostate cancer or other cancers in men.

Flash back to last year — and the year before that. In April 2008 a sophisticated analysis was conducted of all the randomized trials of antioxidant supplements involving adults. Together the trials included 232,606 participants. The analysis confirmed the previous year’s “JAMA” report that the antioxidant supplements beta carotene, and vitamins A and E seem to increase risk of death.

As far back as 2000, large-scale clinical trials did not support — and even questioned — the use of vitamin E and beta carotene for protection against heart disease. And in the 1990s, clinical studies looking at whether antioxidant supplements protected smokers against lung cancer found that beta carotene and vitamin A actually increased cancer risk.

All of these studies have their roots in the observation that people who eat a diet high in vegetables and fruit (main sources of antioxidants) have lower incidence of various cancers and diseases associated with damage from what is called oxidative stress. Researches tested compounds in vegetables and fruit they hoped would prevent or slow down damage to cells caused by oxidation. While this is a laudable goal, it’s beginning to be clear that the benefits of an antioxidant-rich diet can’t be boiled down and put into a nutritional pill.

Vegetables and fruit are filled with antioxidants in a variety of forms. For example, there are several hundred types of carotenes (beta carotene is just one of them) and 8 forms of vitamin E. This is a strong argument for vegetables and fruit over pills that contain single forms of nutrients. Furthermore, vegetables and fruit contain combinations of these compounds that dynamically interact. Finally, supplements are not regulated and do not undergo the strict testing that drugs do (but that’s a topic for another blog).

So rather than chasing after a silver bullet, maybe we should focus on eating a healthier diet. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend eating each day:

  • 3 to 5 servings of fruit
  • 4 to 8 servings of vegetables
  • For a total 7 to 13 servings

And yet a 2005 survey of almost 350,000 adults in the U.S. found that, on average, Americans eat 1.6 servings of fruit and 3.2 servings of vegetables a day. This is terrible!

So what are your thoughts? Did the studies described above cause you to pause and become “anti” about antioxidant supplements? How many servings of vegetables and fruit do you eat every day? I want to hear from you.

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