For many years, Americans believed antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C and E, along with beta-carotene, could help prevent heart disease, cancer, senility and even the aging process itself. Millions of Americans now take various antioxidant supplements hoping they can largely counteract the negative health effects of a diet rich in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, and salt.
Certainly there have been many studies showing that people taking anti-oxidant supplements were at a lower risk for various diseases and even some suggesting that they may live longer. Problem is, these population studies can often be misleading. People taking antioxidant supplements were on average less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to eat a healthy diet. Obviously such lifestyle factors, rather than the supplements themselves, could explain the correlation seen with less disease and anti-oxidant supplements.
The way to get around this bias is randomized, double blind clinical trials. Here people are randomly assigned to either take an antioxidant supplement or a look-a-like placebo. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis looked at 68 such trials with 232,606 subjects. When the researchers looked at the least biased 47 trials using various antioxidant supplements in various combinations they found that supplements of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin A all significantly increased the risk of dying. Vitamin C supplements were also associated with a modest increase in total mortality but this was not statistically significant. The only anti-oxidant supplement that showed any possible benefit was selenium but this was given in doses closer to the RDA than the vitamins.1
Bottom Line: Certainly for most people, high dose anti-oxidant supplements do not slow the aging process or dramatically cut the risk of serious disease. In high doses, many of these antioxidant combo supplements may actually hasten death. By contrast, a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and little salt, fatty animal products (except modest amounts of fish), and refined carbohydrates has been shown to reduce free radical formation, reverse or at least slow degenerative diseases, and may even slow the aging process.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN
1 JAMA 2007;297:842-57
Judy’s passion for cooking began with helping her grandmother make raisin oatmeal for breakfast. From there she earned her first food service job at 15, was accepted to the world-famous Culinary Institute of America at 18 (where she graduated second in her class), and went on to the Fachschule Richemont in Switzerland where she focused on pastry arts and baking. After a decade in food service for Hyatt Hotels, Judy launched Food and Health Communications to focus on flavor and health. She graduated with Summa Cum Laude distinction from Johnson and Wales University with a BS in Culinary Art, holds a master’s degree in Food Business from the Culinary Institute of America, 2 art certificates from UC Berkeley Extension, and runs a food photography studio where her love is creating fun recipes.
Judy received The Culinary Institute of America’s Pro Chef II certification, the American Culinary Federation Bronze Medal, Gold Medal, and ACF Chef of the Year. Her enthusiasm for eating nutritiously and deliciously leads her to constantly innovate and use the latest in nutritional science and Dietary Guidelines to guide her creativity, from putting new twists on fajitas to adapting Italian brownies to include ingredients like toasted nuts and cooked honey. Judy’s publishing company, Food and Health Communications, is dedicated to her vision that everyone can make food that tastes as good as it is for you.