Scientists call it the ‘antioxidant paradox’. You might call it the rip-off of the century. It turns out that popping vitamins—far from being a virtuous thing to do—is actually a short-cut to a cozy pied-à-terre called six feet under. For decades consumers have been brainwashed to believe that oxidants are bad and, therefore, antioxidants, like vitamin A, C, E and beta carotene, must be good. Ha!
Free radicals are formed when body cells convert food to energy. They live for wreaking damage on DNA cell membranes and the lining of arteries and are implicated in some of life’s nasties like pre-mature aging, heart disease and cancer. Our bodies produce antioxidants to neutralize some of the free radicals, and antioxidants are found in abundance in fruits and vegetables. For a long time, the simplistic thinking was that, by increasing the amount of antioxidants we consume – especially through megavitamins – many diseases could be deferred or prevented.
According to the New York Times, numerous studies – some going back to 1994 – have shown that taking megadoses of antioxidants actually increases the chance of dying from cancer or heart disease. One study even had to be stopped for ethical reasons. A group of 18,000 subjects at risk for lung cancer due to asbestos exposure or smoking, were divided into a treatment group receiving a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, and a control group who only received a placebo. The vitamin poppers showed a 46% increase in risk of death from cancer. In 2004, a review of 14 trials on the efficacy of vitamin A, C, E, beta carotene and selenium to prevent intestinal cancer, showed the opposite—an increase in mortality.
It turns out that free radicals are bad but also good, much like the protagonists in HBO dramas. (Tony Soprano was a sociopathic Mob boss who was also kind to ducks.) Free radicals are equal opportunity killers of healthy and diseased cells alike. That means they do an excellent job of eliminating bacteria and new cancer cells before they can gain traction. When we take megavitamins, we upset the balance and free radicals can’t do their jobs properly, hence some cancer cells that might not normally multiply are now able to do so.
Nutritionists have always counseled that a healthy person can get the nutrition she needs from a regular diet. No one would sit and eat 25 pounds of oranges or 7 cantaloupes to load up on vitamin C. But popping pills makes it easy to overdose on antioxidants. We assume that the body will naturally excrete whatever exceeds its needs. Now we finally know that’s a dangerous assumption.
Or do we? The vitamin industry has done terrific job of convincing us that supplements are benign with no real downside to overconsumption. In 1972 the F.D.A. in the US planned to regulate vitamin supplements that contained 150% of the recommended daily intake. Guess what happened? The vitamin lobby came down on the F.D.A. like a ton of nut butter. By 1976 the bill was dead.
The message is: If you’re already pretty healthy, save yourself a small fortune and possibly an untimely demise. Instead of snacking on bags of multi-vitamins, eat an apple a day with a chaser of flax seed, if you must.