Popping antioxidants?

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We are all getting older. Not wiser nor necessarily richer, just older. However, getting on in years still beats the alternative. Just keep your place reserved in God’s waiting room but don’t sit on it just yet and you’ll be right.

Now with living longer, there comes a price. Our organs can start to get tired, so heart, liver, kidney can start to show a decrease in efficiency. There is also the fact that cancer is, by and large, a disease of aging, so anything that can reverse the aging process is of interest.

OK, so we are all living longer, what can we do to get our arthritic hands on the elixir of youth? If you believe the popular press, the answer to aging is multivitamins. Peddling mega-vitamins is a megabuck industry, credited with improving your health, your love life and fixing everything from falling hair to falling arches.

The latest trend is to take daily doses of antioxidants such as beta carotene, vitamin A and C or selenium to protect yourself against cancer, heart disease or signs of premature ageing. There is some scientific ‘proof’ that people who have a high level of antioxidants in their diet have a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. That is why the nutritionists say we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. However, other studies also seem to suggest that taking those same antioxidants in pill form may not have the same effect and may even be harmful. Who do you believe?

Dr Alison Ross, at Cancer Research UK says, “These products don’t seem to give the same benefits as vitamins that naturally occur in our food.”

The British Heart Foundation agrees. A spokesman saying, “Research does not support the claim that taking extra antioxidants in the form of supplements will benefit the heart.”

Let us listen to some experts in the field, and not the label on the multi vitamin bottle. Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London says, “The whole idea that you must meet some vitamin and mineral target every day of your life is a marketing myth. You can eat lots of fruit and veg one day and not much the next but over a week you will still get the right amount of nutrients. There is very little scientific evidence that there is any benefit whatsoever in taking a daily multivitamin – even in old people. You cannot exist on a poor diet then shore yourself up with a multivitamin. The idea that taking high quantities of vitamins will give you a health boost – like putting premium petrol in your car – is complete nonsense.”

Dr Toni Steer, nutritionist with the British Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, states supplements cannot compete with real food because when we eat fruits and vegetables the vitamins and nutrients interact with other chemicals to produce positive effects on the body. “If these same vitamins are pulled out and isolated in pill form, there is no guarantee at all that they will have the same effect.”

Another nail in the multivitamin coffin came from the US journal of the National Cancer Institute which found that men with prostate cancer who took more than seven multivitamins a week were 30 percent more likely to get an advanced and fatal form of the disease. This came after a large, though hotly contested, review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that people who took antioxidant vitamin tablets (particularly vitamins A and E, and beta-carotene) were more likely to die earlier than those who did not. Oops! That isn’t something you will read on the label of the multivitamin bottle.

Let’s look at the old Vitamin C to ward off the common cold, as proposed many years ago by Linus Pauling. Common claim: one-gram doses will ward off or even cure the common cold. Reality check: the human body can absorb only 500 milligrams of vitamin C and will excrete the excess. Vitamin C reduces the average length of a common cold from five days to four and a half – if you are lucky. Finally, do I take multivitamins? No.