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Are “antioxidants” getting pushed onto the medicinal myth list?

Unless you’ve been living on a remote island within a technology-free commune for the past decade; you have probably heard of the many and varied antioxidants you can now add into your life thanks to superfoods, supplements and even “anti aging” skincare products. However, recent discussions among the medical community are highlighting the lack of research behind the huge push we are seeing for this supposedly cancer-preventing, age-reducing, life-extending magic fix.

Beauty magazines share how you should eat “rainbow-coloured” foods  for better skin.  Or better yet, buy this $100 cream that is enriched with x antioxidant to repair sun damage. Then you’ve got supplement companies pushing a different capsule for each antioxidant you need to counter the ever-fearful “free radicals”.

More Harm Than Good?

In this article from Scientific American, they share Dr. P.H. Walter Willett’s (Department of Nutrition chair at the Harvard School of Public Health ) view’s on the topic as detailed in a Cancer and Diet forum in January 2016.

(image source: Cookstr.com)

(image source: Cookstr.com)

On the subject of the proof behind antioxidant benefits, he shares…

Even after several decades we don’t have a clear answer, there’s not, if there were really across-the-board powerful benefits we would have seen it, and that’s not the situation.”

Not only is there little scientific backing to the idea that antioxidants can add to your overall health and well being but in a scary twist Dr.P.H. Willett added…

 There was actually a surprising increase in lung cancer with beta-carotene, one of the antioxidants, in people who smoked and were heavy drinkers, although there was no increase in risk in people…who were generally pretty healthy to start with”. 

The other complication to this whole movement is that researchers are starting to find that with an incorrect dosage of antioxidant supplements you can actually start to eradicate the benefits from other healthy behaviors you are undertaking.

Scientific American wrote this fascinating piece explaining the true meaning of free radicals (in delightfully easy-to-digest terms), their relationship with antioxidants and the under-explored dangers of high-dose antioxidant supplements.

Within the piece they discussed a recent study that found a high-dose Vitamin C supplement shown to eliminate the free radicals produced by exercise in it’s subjects. Imagine that, your 1000mg vitamin derailing the 1 hour jog you forced yourself out of bed for in the morning!?

This Is Where It Gets Tricky

photodune-5441345-betacarotene-carot-pigment-molecular-model-xs-300x300-compressorOn the flip side, in the same breath (and in the same article) they mention that there is a health study randomized trial that followed subjects for a period of 12 years and at the conclusion of that period those that were taking beta-carotene had better cognitive function than those subjects on the placebo. The tricky part is, there is seemingly no unanimous trial or study that can confirm a consistent result of antioxidants and their benefits.

There may be some benefit to some people but as Mr Willett added… “even if there are, that’s only a small part of the changes that we need to make in diet and lifestyle to reduce our risk of cancers…there are so many other things that are quite well documented”

So… What’s The Answer?

The reality is that many of the mass-marketed antioxidant products we come into contact with via TV, magazines and on our drugstore shelves are making claims that are under-supported if not entirely un-proven in scientific research.

There is still very little known about the overall benefits to be reaped by taking antioxidants in their current commercial form and by contrast, many many, proven steps you can take to enhance your health and wellbeing before investing money and time in such products.

Kudos to Scientific American for a captivating read and some important myth busting on this Monday morning!

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