Readers React to Antioxidant Article

Warning: This information cannot be generalized….

Silly me! Why was I afraid of being misquoted by the health media last week? The article of concern, The Truth About Antioxidants in Men’s Health, did justice to the Cochrane Review and to me. The writer clearly made the point that individual antioxidants supplements (beta-carotene and vitamins A, E and C) were not found to work in a major scientific review, and might actually be harmful.

It must be difficult for health writers to communicate complex scientific information, but writers are only as good as their sources, and so I feel responsible to provide accurate quotes. But, in this case, I should have been concerned about the audience who, as it turns out, didn’t want to hear it. Imagine my surprise when I read the comments:

“No, you’re wrong. There have been studies done that show no toxic effects of Vitamin A at doses greater than 100,000 IU.  Vitamin E is safe and non-toxic….”

“Really Men’s HEALTH!! Shame on you and get the facts straight please. If you are not an idiot, one knows it is not only the quality of the supplement but the insight to supplement where it is needed on an individual basis.”

“This article is ridiculous. It makes me wonder how many other articles are CRAP on this website as well as the periodical? TO ANYONE READING THIS…Visit the Linus Pauling Institute online. Also, look up the Gerson Therapy.”

“To discredit vitamin supplements like in this article is a joke.  Deficiency is the problem in this country – vitamins aren’t (even supplements). Beta-Carotene doesn’t show any side effects in high doses. Vitamin E is safe and non-toxic.”

Alrighty then! Let’s hope those readers (and there were more) are the vocal minority. Skepticism is healthy, but there is a difference between opinion and fact. And while we’re at it, public health recommendations are not based on personal experience. And, finally, don’t shoot the messenger, especially when the messenger is me!

Your thoughts:  Is health information in the popular press worth reading? What’s a ‘nutrition expert’ to do?

Individual Antioxidants Aren’t Worth Taking

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
Where does your information go?

I am frequently interviewed by health writers. I entered their circles at my last job. Getting my name out is good for driving traffic to my website. I like to read about topics in nutrition and answer questions, but the content of the final article can be a surprise. Let’s see what happens to yesterday’s interview. Check back here for the final version in a few days.

And so, yesterday, I commented on the Cochrane Review of Antioxidant Supplements for Prevention of Mortality in Healthy Participants and Patients with Various Diseases – all 258 pages. The review is of all primary and secondary prevention randomized clinical trials to assess the beneficial and harmful effects the popular anti-oxidant supplements, beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium, verses placebo and no intervention. Antioxidants are compounds in plant foods that neutralize the byproducts of normal biochemical reactions. Those processes create unstable molecules (‘free radicals’) that, if left unchecked, can damage cells and, presumably, create disease.

Cut to the Chase

The review concluded that none of the supplements helped, and beta-carotene, vitamin E and vitamin A are potentially harmful. That didn’t surprise me because antioxidant research is in its infancy, and those popular supplements are only five of literally thousands and thousands of nutrients and phytochemicals (nutrients that are neither vitamins nor minerals) with antioxidant action. For instance, beta-carotene is one of more than 600 known carotenoids. Furthermore, some compounds have anti-oxidant activity in the lab but not in the body.

But the writer wanted to know if there is ever a particular situation in which an individual should consider taking one of the supplements in the review paper.  Err, no, the review said that taking individual antioxidants doesn’t work and is sometimes harmful. I recommend those antioxidants only as part of a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement with a full compliment of nutrients. I take such a supplement that does not exceed 100% of the DRI and goes nowhere near the tolerable upper intake level (UL) for any nutrient. And, yes, individuals should take a supplement at times when ‘oxidative stress’ is high. I’m thinking about extreme physical stress (e.g. training for an endurance event, working long hours in manual labor, inability to escape insufferable weather), or extreme emotional stress (e.g. painful divorce, incarceration, being fired), or during convalescence from an illness, accident or surgery, or when their usual diet is just plain crap. Those folks need a complete supplement, not a module, because nutrients work in synergy.

And so, my final answer is to eat a wholesome diet and skip the individual antioxidant supplements. Now, I’m waiting to see what actually shakes down.

Your thoughts, do you that nutritional supplements?