Antioxidants 101 – Regina Leader-Post, September 23, 2010
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Antioxidants 101 – Regina Leader-Post, September 23, 2010

By Patrick Langston, Postmedia News

They’re marketed as cancer-fighting agents, capable of reducing the effects of aging and other ailments. But is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

These days, it seems everything from blueberries and dark chocolate to leafy greens and red wine is being touted for antioxidant properties that battle cancer and heart disease and stymie the effects of aging.

But are the benefits of loading up on antioxidants overblown?

“Honestly, yes,” says Dr. Belinda Heyne, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Calgary. She is leading a research project into the role of free radicals — cell-damaging molecules that are produced by smoking, sunlight and other triggers and blamed for various diseases — in the development of cancer.

Antioxidants, which include vitamins C and E, are said to “mop up” free radicals.

“There is so much stuff on antioxidants, and people are trying to find a quick fix. It’s become a marketing fix,” says Heyne.

Likening the human body to a factory capable of building everything it needs to sustain itself, Heyne says a healthy person produces all the antioxidants needed to battle free radicals.

The National Cancer Institute in the United States largely agrees, saying our bodies “are quite effective at neutralizing free radicals . . . but this process isn’t 100-per-cent effective, and its effectiveness declines with age.”

The institute adds that large-scale clinical trials are inconclusive about the cancer-fighting ability of antioxidants.

Heyne points out that overdosing on antioxidants can, in fact, cause health problems, a claim supported by a study published last year in the journal, Cell Metabolism.

It found that antioxidants might actually increase the risk of early-stage diabetes.

Moderation, like in all things, is key, she says.

When it comes to maintaining those healthy antioxidant levels, Pascale Messier, a dietitian with Ottawa Public Health, says, “My take is to eat a variety a food, so you get a bit of antioxidants from everywhere. If you follow Canada’s Food Guide and eat fewer refined foods, you should be OK.”

And Messier says don’t forget the other half of the equation: “If you smoke and don’t exercise, all the blueberries in the world won’t save you.”

Skin care products don’t offer much salvation either. Widely marketed as containing antioxidants that can reduce or eliminate wrinkles and other ravages of age, they should be approached with a wary eye.

“Vitamin C is one of the strongest antioxidants, and it’s good for reducing brown spots,” says Toronto dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett. But since product testing is done by manufacturers, she says, “proof that other antioxidants do anything is harder to find.”

Since skin reflects the overall health of the body, she adds, “the better you care for yourself, the better your skin looks.”

Fact or fiction?

1. Supplements are the best source of antioxidants and other nutrients.
False. Whole foods provide a range of nutrients, which may heighten the effect of their antioxidants.

2. Chocolate is a good thing.
True. Dark chocolate contains as much or more antioxidants as fresh fruit and vegetables.

3. You never need to take supplements with antioxidants.
False. At times of high stress, multivitamins can provide the extra nutrients we need.

4. Antioxidant-rich food can help your skin.
Probably. Leafy green vegetables, beans, and other foods seem to have a protective effect on the skin.

They also benefit the rest of your body.

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