Antioxidants (updated)

The CSIRO website states that:

Antioxidants are naturally occurring chemicals in foods that help to counter the detrimental effects of oxygen free radicals, which form during normal metabolism and through external factors such as x-rays, ultra-violet radiation and pollution.

Oxygen free radicals have been implicated in the development of several diseases including cancer and heart disease, highlighting the need to consider antioxidant levels as part of preventative medicine.

They also go on to state that:

Recent research shows the risk of cancer and heart disease is considerably lower in people who consume 5-7 serves of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables.

This is supported by extensive studies which indicate that diets high in antioxidant rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, offer significant protection against other age-related degenerative diseases.

A reputable source, I would have thought, and wouldn’t have questioned them if I hadn’t just been reading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre.  In his book, he points out a number of problems with the theory.  He points out that Free Radicals aren’t always bad.  In fact they’re the weapons our immune system uses to fight off infections.  He also points towards a study that showed people taking antioxidant supplements were 46% more likely to die from lung cancer and 17% more likely to die from any cause.

He also talks about Nutritionists in his book.  A profession I’ve had little dealings with, but have never thought to question.

One wonders how a lay-person like myself (and many of you) with no scientific background is supposed to sort through all the information we are bombarded with everyday,  and figure out what we can trust.

Goldacre gives a lot of good advice on just how you can do this.  I’m only halfway through the book, but have already discovered a good resource in The Chochrane Collaboration.

When in doubt, the best advice I found to follow in his book is this;

Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and live your whole life in every way as well as you can: exercise regularly as a part of  your daily routine, avoid obesity, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke, and don’t get distracted from the real, basic, simple causes of ill health.

So far I’ve found the book informative, easy to read and even funny.  There is one thing that annoys me about this, otherwise well written, well presented and well researched book, is that there is no index.  As a person who deals with reference inquiries for a living, I find that really unhelpful.  Despite this flaw, I would still highly recommend reading it.


Goldacre, Ben. Bad Science. Fourth Estate, 2008


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