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Can antioxidants be harmful to health?

That is what Gemma wanted to know when she posted a question in the Natural Juice Junkie Community on Facebook.

Gemma had been watching Trust Me I’m A Doctor on the BBC, when something came up that confused her and her partner.

Gemma, who is a qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutritional therapist, and has been juicing daily for 3 years when the BBC show featured claims of an experiment which ‘proved’ that taking on high amounts of antioxidants can actually be harmful to your body.

According to Gemma, the BBC show suggested this was because consuming high amounts of antioxidants causes your natural antioxidant production to slow down.

Gemma said “the experiment was a very small scale experiment and was based around shop-bought juices, but in theory the same results would apply to freshly made juice.”

“I am of the opinion that they are talking BS and I’m going to keep juicing regardless, as it makes me feel amazing. However, Tina [Gemma’s partner] has been quite thoughtful about it and asked me to pose the question to you, to see what your thoughts were. It surprised us both that increasing our antioxidant intake could be harmful, and just sounds like it can’t be true!”

What Are Antioxidants?

The average human can live about 30 days without food, about 5-6 days without water, but only about 2 minutes without oxygen.

You might think that antioxidants, cut oxygen flow in the body and hence overconsumption would be dangerous, but…

Your body has something called free radicals, which are very unstable molecules. Free radicals react quickly with other cells in the body, trying to ‘steal’ what they need to gain stability. Think of free radicals as being a bit like an addict in desperate need of a fix. Feeling unwell and unstable, they may be prepared to do whatever is necessary in order to get back into a stable state, even if this brings injury or harm to others.

This is just like the free radical. Its goal is to become stable, regardless of how it may damage other cells.

Free radical damage has been associated with disease in the body, such as the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Antioxidants help to ‘police’ your body. Just as police help to minimise the risk of crime from addicts in need of a fix, antioxidants help to neutralise free radicals and prevent them from causing damage.

Are Antioxidants Safe?

Some studies suggest high-dose antioxidant supplements may be harmful.

For example, the use of high-dose beta-carotene supplements has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers and use of high-dose vitamin E supplements has been linked to increased risks of hemorrhagic stroke and prostate cancer.

The key thing in this research is it has looked at supplements, not whole foods.

A Whole Foods Approach

Whilst there is evidence to suggest high-dose supplementation can have a negative impact on health, there are also many examples of high levels of supplementation being beneficial (for example the use of megadose vitamins featured in That Vitamin Movie and the documentary Food Matters).

One thing that is not disputed is that vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants.

Research also shows that people who eat more vegetables and fruits have lower risks of disease.

A study of 65,226 men and women indicated the more fruit and vegetables people ate, the less likely they were to die – at any given age.

Risk of death by any cause over the course of the study was reduced by:

  • 14% by eating one to three portions of fruit or veg per day
  • 29% for three to five
  • 36% for five to seven
  • 42% for seven or more (up to around 10 portions a day)

These results may or may not be related to the amount of antioxidants in vegetables and fruits, but does it matter? What we do know is that consuming more vegetables and fruit is advantageous to health.

It really bugs me the way things like antioxidants or calories are discussed in the media. It is as if all an isolated component of a food is identical regardless of its source.

Does anyone really believe that 100 calories of donut and 100 calories of broccoli are the same?

This reductionist view of our food is crazy.

I’ve said it many times before and will know doubt say it many more times too: if you want to be as nature intended you need to eat and live as nature intended.

Only when we eat as nature intended, will we be as nature intended

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