Not too long ago, many people were popping antioxidant pills—certain vitamins, minerals and plant substances (phytonutrients)—with abandon. Antioxidants had earned mega praise as health insurance in a bottle, credited with fighting everything from heart disease and cancer to sniffles. But recently, an analysis of 67 studies involving nearly a quarter of a million people says that big doses of these tablets and capsules are best.
Does this have anything to do with your mainstream daily multivitamin/mineral, which contains a wide array of antioxidants as well as many other nutrients? No. Don't let the latest medical-study pingpong match scare you away from a multi...much less from the phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables.

Truth is, when news organizations highlighted the 191-page antioxidant report, important details got lost. Two examples:

  1. Yes, beta carotene and vitamins A and E (all antioxidants) did raise the risk of death by 4 to 16 percent, but only in studies involving high doses—more than 15,000 international units (IU) of A and 7,500 IU of E. That's three to 300 times higher than recommended levels—not smart. For instance, we know too much vitamin A increases your risk of lung and liver cancers, and bone weakening too. (Choose a multi with fewer than 3,500 IU of A.)
  2. Meanwhile, selenium didn't seem to affect the risk of dying, one way or the other. But as far as living well, selenium appears to lower some cancer risks and increase prostate health.
Also, while evidence against taking high-dose antioxidant supplements has been mounting, so has the support for eating lots of antioxidant-rich foods. One dramatic example: Taking supplements of vitamin A actually raises lung cancer risk in smokers. But new research has found that eating lots of strawberries, apples, beans, onions, brussels sprouts and green and black tea—all rich in antioxidants—cuts the risk of lung cancer in smokers.

The likely moral of this nutritional story: All of us (not just smokers) need the complex cornucopia of nutrients in real food to fight cell damage and disease.

But since it's easy to get too few antioxidants and other nutrients when you're eating breakfast in the car, lunch at your computer and dinner over the kitchen sink (we're not recommending this, by the way; we're just listening to what you tell us), we also believe it's a good idea to take a mainstream multi as an insurance policy against a less-than-perfect diet. It's also a good idea to divide it in two and take it twice a day—it makes it easier for your body to absorb all those nutrients.

As for proceeding with caution with some antioxidants, here are our basic guidelines:
  • If you're taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, be careful with vitamins E and C.
    These can inhibit the anti-inflammatory component of cholesterol-clearing statins such as Mevacor, Lipitor, Crestor and Pravachol. While they'll still lower your cholesterol, 40 percent or more of their benefits are anti-inflammatory, and you'd be missing out on those. Avoid taking more than 100 IU of E daily or 100 milligrams of C twice a day. (This flags another problem with these studies, by the way: They often involved medications that interact with C and E but didn't limit the use of the two vitamins.)
  • If you're facing cancer treatment, avoid antioxidant supplements entirely, unless your doc specifically tells you it is okay.
    They may help protect the cancer tissue, so they could make your treatment less effective.
  • If you want to up your intake of phytonutrient-rich foods (of course you do!), shop for fruits and veggies by color.
    The brighter and deeper the color outside (including deep greens), the more the phytonutrients are waiting inside. All-stars (in alphabetical order) include apples, bananas, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, citrus, cranberries, dark-colored beans (like black and kidney beans), figs, peaches, red cabbage, red peppers, spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Aim for at least nine servings of phytonutrient-rich fruits and veggies a day. A diet high in them can help your body combat cancer, heart disease, diabetes and needless aging.
  • If you want a no-calorie way to boost your antioxidant supply, sip tea and coffee.
    Green and black tea, as well as coffee, are packed with antioxidants. We recommend more than 2 cups of each per day if you and your doc agree.
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