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February 2004 Issue
Which antioxidant supplements should we take?
by Michael Fick
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Oops … I lied. Many thorough, well-controlled, huge, double-blind, rootin’-tootin’, high-falutin’, clinical antioxidant tests have been conducted over many years by many universities and hospitals and medical associations, with these fairly consistent conclusions for the general population: vitamin C supplements don’t help any diseases and may cause harm, vitamin E supplement tests may help some patients a little but saw increased deaths at sub-smoking-gun numbers, vitamin A supplements killed test subjects in numbers that halted some tests early, and antioxidant supplements impair the efficacy of the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs many millions of Americans need for their cardiovascular health.

Did these tests cram horse pills into mice? Are moderate doses beneficial? No, and no. These were modest doses in hundreds of thousands of real people. For the general population, almost no authoritative source recommends antioxidant supplements, many advise against them, and probably every one prefers real food to supplements.

For persuasive elaboration, ask Google about the word “antioxidants” combined with any of these terms: National Cancer Institute, NIH (the U.S. government), New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard, Quackwatch, AHA, AMA, etc. If vitamin C “cured your aunt’s cancer”, tell those institutions. When you convince them, they’ll inform us and we’ll relay it to our readers. For now, these institutions state that a) antioxidants are vital to our health and longevity, b) most Americans need more antioxidants, but c) most antioxidant supplements are usually useless at best. So how do we get enough antioxidants?

Once again: Food. Not pills, not white bread or cereal fortified with 4 of the 400 beneficial phytochemicals stripped from the wheat between harvest and oven; FOOD. Plants, some meats including fish and fowl, even a little wine and chocolate. Clear winners? More than a pound a day of brightly, deeply colored vegetables and fruit. A can or big heap of lightly cooked or fresh bright red and yellow and purple and orange and deep green squirmin’, freakin’, often steamin’ VEGETABLES every day, plus several servings of whole fruits and grains. The only antioxidants most of us can benefit from were packaged by Mother Nature, but factories strip them from many of the commercial, manufactured, processed, packaged, artificial food substitutes that fill many grocery store shelves (the entire non-whole-grain bakery section, for example), and from most of the crap some people actually eat from convenience store shelves (double shudder … and let’s hope the hyperbole makes my point). The AMA’s bottom line: “The most prudent and scientifically supportable recommendation for the general population is to consume a balanced diet with emphasis on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains.”

Antioxidants are such a dominant factor in most fruits and vegetables that their very color announces their primary antioxidant and the color’s brilliance indicates antioxidant strength … even to the point that as a bright, yellow, antioxidant-laden banana over-ripens (oxidizes) into mere sugar, its color changes from yellow to brown to black. That’s why we need all the colors, and why we need deep, brilliant, rich colors. But don’t forget the earth tones; nuts, whole grain breads and cereals, and potatoes are also good sources of antioxidants. For an antioxidant grocery list, type the words antioxidant food sources, without punctuation, in a Google window, hit ENTER, and follow your mouse.

That’s how you eat all you want, all the time, yet still maintain a lean machine and outlive your meat’n’potato-head friends. If that doesn’t sound delicious, you need to retrain your chef (but that’s a future column). The meat’n’potatoes – or, worse, the sat-fat-laden Atkins’ nonsense – most restaurants emphasize is disgusting and alarming. We should support restaurants which emphasize healthy and delicious food, ignore the rest and hope they change their cuisine (because our medical insurance pays their customers’ health costs), and encourage other people to eat enough pizza and ice cream to keep the pizza and ice cream parlors open for our occasional indulgence.

Bluntly put, BUYING antioxidant pills is more likely to harm than help us, whereas SAVING beer and cigarette and junk food money (and getting more sleep) provides nothing but extreme benefits. I.e., we can PAY to suffer more and die earlier or BE PAID to stay healthier and live longer. Doesn’t that just define the word, “Duh!”?

For the umpteenth time … there are no shortcuts to long, healthy lives for normal people with average genes. If you don’t heed your Mom’s first mantra (“Eat your vegetables”), you’d better heed her other mantra because you’re likely to need that clean underwear sooner than necessary. And we haven’t even mentioned exercise this month.

Now, just in case millions of hours of research are totally wrong, and because some tests indicate that certain specific antioxidants may slow the progress of certain pre-existing diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, the world’s health institutions are still conducting some tests. If they ever validate antioxidant pills (or the Atkins diet) for people without specific, diagnosed diseases, we’ll let you know.

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