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Antioxidants: Science, Potential Benefits, and Debate

Posted on Feb 19, 2016 4:44:28 PM by healtheo360

What Are Antioxidants?

 Antioxidants are molecules, either man-made or natural, that prevent the oxidation of other molecules.  Oxidation is a chemical reaction that produces free radicals.  The presence of free radicals in the body can lead to damage of cells and genetic material.  The human body produces its own antioxidants as part of its own defense mechanism against free radicals, and we also attain them from some of the foods we eat.  There are likely thousands of different substances that can be labeled as antioxidants.  The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and minerals such as selenium and manganese.  Vegetables, fruits, and green tea are rich sources of antioxidants.  There are also supplements available that provide high doses of these molecules, however their benefits are uncertain and are actually linked with potential health risks.  Thus, it is imperative to consult a physician or registered dietitian in order to determine how best to incorporate antioxidants int your diet and health regimen.


What Are the Suggested Health Benefits of Antioxidants?

 In the 1990’s, scientists discovered that damage from free radicals was involved in the early stages of the artery-clogging disease atherosclerosis.  In addition to these findings, there was a possible link between free radicals and cancer, vision loss, and many other chronic conditions.  Studies showed that people who did not consume enough antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables were at a greater risk for developing these ailments than those who did.  Clinical trials ensued testing the effect of particular antioxidants, namely beta-carotene and vitamin E.  The expectation of these tests was that these substances were powerful weapons for the prevention of cancer and heart disease, however the results provided little supportive evidence.  What we can be certain of is that consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (all of which contain a diverse array of antioxidants and helper molecules) is a vital way to prevent the afflictions of aging.

Antioxidant Supplements: Friend or Foe?

 Antioxidant supplementation has become extremely popular in recent years.  As of 2010, an estimated 30% of Americans were taking antioxidant supplements.  The potential disease-fighting abilities have been well advertised, but few people are aware of the research that suggests supplement treatment with antioxidants can be harmful for some.  Consumption of certain isolated antioxidants at high doses is actually associated with increased chances of developing lung cancer, heart failure, and general mortality.  So far, the studies are inconclusive, but they generally don’t support the argument that antioxidant supplementation has a significant impact on disease.



 US National Library of Medicine
Today's Dietitian
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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