Health & Fitness

Our bodies run on chemistry. We take in chemicals through our mouth, nose, and skin, break them down into simpler chemicals, transport those to wherever the body demands, then combine/burn/combust/oxidize them in every cell to create energy and more chemicals. This oxidation process is facilitated by and produces highly active versions (free radicals) of otherwise ordinary atoms and molecules. The results of all this chemical activity include everything our bodies need and do, such as raising an arm, hearing a sound, thinking up E=MC**2, building bone, and carrying out our internal garbage.

Ideally these processes operate in balance to produce a lean, mean, clean, long-living machine with minimal waste. In reality, however, we ingest pollutants, we eat oversized portions and wrong proportions of wrong foods, and many of our body’s daily billions of chemical conversions go wrong go wrong go wrong. The result is excess free radicals in every cell of our body. They keep oxidizing and oxidizing and oxidizing, like Energizer bunnies in a power blackout, until they burn themselves out oxidizing the scenery. This wreaks slow, molecular havoc on the cells’ genetic blueprints (DNA), and over decades the corrupt DNA propagates and accumulates its genetic damage into growing numbers of corrupt replacement cells. The results include aging, most cancers, cardiovascular disease, blindness, dementia, and many other problems.

We have at least four general preventative lines of defense against the excess free radicals: we can block some from entry, reduce their production inside our bodies, neutralize them, and pray we have genes which will help resist them. We cannot yet determine our genes, but we can significantly fortify the first three defenses.

First, try to block existing free radicals from entering your body. Avoid anything deep fried, especially in used or rancid oils (you don’t want fries with that), cigarette smoke, urban pollution – especially exercising in urban pollution, food blackened in a pan or on the grille (where it’s subjected to excess, oxidizing heat), and lawn and garage chemicals.

Reduce free radical production in your body by avoiding the types of “food” which generate free radicals, such as sat-fat-laden sludge such as bacon, ribs, chicken skin, butter, ice cream, whole milk, cheese and many others (read labels). Far more dangerous are trans-fat-laden (avoid “partially hydrogenated”, and watch for the upcoming trans fat category, in food labels), manufactured, commercial food substitutes like donuts, cookies, chips and margarine. Go cold turkey -- consciously scorn it at work and don’t bring it into your home -- and you’ll never miss it. Some rabidly obsessed vegetarians may get less sat fat than they need, but the other 99.999% of us get too much. Read http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/reviews/transfats.html and you’ll never want another Oreo cookie.

The nutrients which neutralize the excess free radical oxidants we ingest or create are, by definition, antioxidants. Every type of brightly colored plant contains its own unique cocktail of hundreds of phytochemicals (which include antioxidants), and most bodily organs and systems hoard their own unique blend of antioxidants, such as vitamin A in healthy eyes. People who eat adequate amounts and varieties of high-antioxidants fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cataracts, dementia, and many other dread diseases. No one doubts that adequate antioxidants help us live healthier, longer lives.

And because America’s way of treating health problems is shoving pills into our bodies in the hopes they will kill what ails us before what ails us kills us, antioxidant supplements are sold on every corner of the web and the mall. (“If healthy eyes contain vitamin A, isn’t more better?”) Moderate amounts of antioxidant supplements such as vitamin A, C, and E are no-brainers, especially since vitamin C tablets are widely known to help prevent and/or cure many diseases from colds to cancer. Dick Clark eats antioxidants by the pound and doesn’t look a day over 74 under his makeup.

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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