Health & Fitness

Get Your Head Around Antioxidants

Written by Frances Grove

I don’t trust most health experts. And not just because they’re usually delivering bad news for people like me, who’d prefer not to exert themselves and who think every meal should be heavenly and memorable. It’s that these experts change their minds. A lot. And now the same thing is happening with antioxidants, and whether they’re good, bad or useless.

It’s the same old story: A medical study is published, the experts all throw on blazers and make the rounds of morning shows and cable news. And when the science is debunked a few years later, these same experts make the same rounds, urging us viewers to get current or die trying. So what’s a girl – who’s interested in staying alive, yet gets the bulk of her medical information from the morning news – to do?

I could do my own research, to start. I want to take advantage of every route to better health. But I need to carefully review the data if I’m going to make some informed decisions.

The Big Five
Let’s start with what we know. The antioxidants everybody talks about are Vitamin C, Vitamin E, resveratrol, flavonoids and carotenoids. You can find them in foods like fruits, vegetables, tea, red wine and chocolate — or you can buy them in straight-up supplement form.

The science behind antioxidants
I get that the antioxidants protect my cells from the free radical molecules, which, despite sounding like comic book villains, are actually real and actually want to kill me. But I need more information. How? Why? And can it be explained in such a way that someone without a biology degree can understand?

But can they wash my car?
At first glance, antioxidants seem almost too good to be true. They can boost my immune system against cold and flu, prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, all types of cancer and ALS. Oh, and they’ll make me look younger. It’s claims like these that stock the shelves with acai-berry-infused hand lotion and green tea foot soak powder.

Wait. About those antioxidants…
But then comes the inevitable back-tracking. In 2008, the Journal of the America Medical Association concluded that antioxidants had no health benefits — and that in fact, antioxidants at high levels are extremely toxic. Some studies seemed to prove that they cause skin cancer or infertility.

Could we all just try to come to a consensus on this one? In the meantime, almost everyone agrees that it’s a bad idea to self-prescribe massive doses of antioxidant supplements. And it’s an especially bad idea to take massive doses of just one antioxidant (such as Vitamin E) alone, although they seem to be beneficial when combined with each other, according to published reports. Another significant factor to consider? Antioxidant supplements are not cheap and if you take a combination of them as some doctors suggest, that can quickly add up.

There is another option for gaining the benefits of antioxidants without throwing back a bunch of pills. According to naturopathic physician Dr. Bill Walter of Golden Apple Healthcare in Eugene, Oregon, “There are specific conditions where I might prescribe specific antioxidants for short- or long-term use, but I don’t recommend people take antioxidant supplements as part of their general health practice. Research consistently supports the health benefits of getting antioxidants from whole foods, where they are typically matrixed with dozens of other mutually beneficial compounds – many of which we don’t fully understand. A shorter answer? Skip the Vitamin C and eat your veggies.”

Natural ways to supplement your supplements
If you’re on a tight budget — or just want to find your antioxidants naturally — eat a diet rich in antioxidant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains and you will likely get all the nutritional benefits you need. And it’s not that hard. Just incorporate them into your diet slowly. Make a list of antioxidant-rich foods and stick it on your fridge, or take it with you when you shop for groceries. Try to buy two or three new items on the list each time you go to the market. If you enjoy these foods and can figure out a way to prepare them easily, great. If not, move on to something else on the list.

Here are just a few examples of antioxidant-rich foods. I bet half of this stuff is on your grocery list already.

Betacarotene and other carotenoids: Apricots, broccoli, kale, carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes

Vitamin C: Berries, pineapple, citrus fruits, cantaloupe

Vitamin E: Broccoli, papaya, beans, lentils, Brazil nuts, garlic, onions, molasses, whole grains, brown rice, oatmeal Selenium: Chicken, garlic, onions, salmon, tuna, eggs, dairy

If you want to supplement, contact your doctor
Please remember the importance of traditional medical advice. Though we do research to give you the best information out there, only you and your personal doctor can truly know what’s best for you and your health.

In my case, at least for now, I’m going to get my antioxidants from food. I’ve been meaning to try some new recipes anyhow. If any specific health issues arise, I’ll talk to my doctor about taking supplements for a short amount of time. What about the rest of you — what do Constant Chatter readers plan to do?

About the author

Frances Grove

Frances Grove is a freelance writer and script coordinator in Los Angeles. She's written articles for the Los Angeles Downtown News and creative content for HBO, along with a waist high stack of scripts on spec. She's worked in the TV industry for ten years, but her fantasy careers would be to name nail polish colors, grow tomatoes, and do crosswords professionally.

Currently reading: Spoiled by The Fug Girls

Workout m.o.: Brisk walk or hike through Griffith Park, aqua aerobics or a yoga class

Secretly obsessed with: The Stellar's Sea Cow (extinct)

Dream vacation: Italian countryside, rented villa for a month, friends and family visiting in shifts.

Currently listening to: Talking Heads' "Talking Heads:77"

Go-to relaxation technique:Adult beverage + hammock

Personal theme song: "You Just Haven't Earned it Yet Baby" by The Smiths

Must-haves if trapped on a desert island: Tweezers, SPF, light-weight poolside coverup and kicky wedge heels, The Coen Brothers Collection and suitable playing device.