health or hype?
morning at 5:30 a.m. Bob Miller wakes up and heads downstairs
for the morning rituals. He lets the dog out, makes coffee, glances
at the newspaper, and, as he has every day for the last two years,
takes his vitamins--all 16 of them.
swallows 800 international units (IU) of vitamin E, 25,000 IU
of beta carotene, and 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. At lunch,
the 62-year-old geologist takes more vitamin E and C, and more
again at dinner. Bob, whose father and first wife died of cancer,
began taking antioxidant vitamins after reading that they may
help ward off the dreaded illness.
look at it as preventative medicine," he says. "I try
to keep my automobile in repair by doing preventative maintenance,
and I try to use that same philosophy on my body. Maybe it works,
maybe it doesn't. But I don't have cancer."
learning several years ago that these antioxidants don't just
correct nutritional deficiencies but may actually reduce the risks
of heart disease, cataracts, and certain forms of cancer, people
began swallowing them in megadoses. About 100 million Americans
took vitamin and mineral supplements in 1993, according to the
Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association in Washington,
D.C., that represents vitamin supplement manufacturers. Many are
buying the big three--vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene.
recent studies have shown that antioxidants may not be able to
reverse a lifetime of poor habits. As doctors and nutritional
experts debate the preventative powers of antioxidants, confused
consumers are left wondering, should we or shouldn't we?
is an antioxidant? Antioxidants are substances that fight free
radicals in our bodies. All molecules contain electrons, and these
electrons normally occur in pairs. Occasionally, a free radical--an
unstable molecule with an unpaired electron--shows up. Left unchecked,
that molecule will steal an electron from a neighboring molecule,
and the next molecule will rob from its neighbor, and so on, wreaking
havoc in cells along the way.
combat free radicals by giving up an electron of their own, stabilizing
the free radical. Some antioxidants occur naturally in the body,
but research shows that additional antioxidants taken in as food
or supplements help boost the good works.
do antioxidants do? Here's a quick look at the big three and how
they may benefit our bodies.
C: Several studies have suggested that vitamin C, found in leafy
greens and citrus fruits, may boost the immune system and prevent
the formation of nitrosamines, which are potentially cancer-causing
compounds. In some studies, people who eat foods that are rich
in vitamin C have a lower risk of cancer of the stomach, cervix,
E: This vitamin, found in nuts, vegetable oils, and wheat germ,
may have a protective role in heart disease and cancer. Research
that began in 1976 at Harvard Medical School has shown a lower
risk of heart disease and stroke among participants who took vitamin
E supplements. But researchers aren't certain whether people who
take vitamin E supplements also do other things that reduce their
chances of getting cancer or heart disease.
in large amounts, vitamin E also may help prevent colon cancer,
especially in women under age 65. Researchers conducting the Iowa
Women's Health Study followed 35,000 women, ages 55--69, for over
five years and found that the women who developed colon cancer
were less likely to have taken vitamin E supplements.
carotene: People who eat fruits and vegetables rich in beta carotene
(which converts to vitamin A in our bodies) have a reduced risk
of cancer and possibly heart disease. Beta carotene is found in
many vegetables such as carrots and spinach, and eating more vegetables
is thought to lower the risk of several cancers, including lung,
cervix, and colon.
they really work? Until results from ongoing clinical trials are
complete, experts will continue to disagree on the benefits of
antioxidants. Some say only a healthy diet has been proven helpful
with certain diseases. Others say we need supplements because
we are not getting all the minerals and vitamin nutrients we need
from diet alone. Besides, they say, vitamins are a cheap insurance
policy for a few dollars a month that could one day pay off.
have been several major studies on the powers of antioxidants
in the body. One of the largest was published in 1993 in The Journal
of the National Cancer Institute. Researchers studied 30,000 men
and women in China. Some were given daily doses of vitamins, including
beta carotene and vitamin E, and the others, a placebo. Those
who took the supplement had a 21 percent lower death rate from
Cooper, M.D., the man credited with starting the aerobics revolution
and author of Dr. Kenneth Cooper's Antioxidant Revolution (Thomas
Nelson, Nashville, 1994, $22.99) is so convinced that some antioxidants
can help prevent illness that he advises people to take them in
doses much larger than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).
RDAs are nutritional intakes suggested by the Food and Nutrition
Board of the National Academy of Sciences to maintain health in
the United States.
recommends mixing up a daily "antioxidant cocktail"
of 400 IU of vitamin E, 1,000 mg of vitamin C, and 25,000 IU of
reviewed over 200 articles in scientific journals before writing
my book, and I was just as much a skeptic as anyone," Cooper
says. "I think this is the next major breakthrough in preventative
medicine. The proof is out there."
a high-profile study reported in April 1994 by a team of Finnish
scientists has suggested that vitamin E and beta carotene may
not offer protection from chronic disease after all. Among a group
of 29,000 middle-aged male smokers taking either vitamin or both,
the study found that there was no reduction in risk of lung cancer,
and even an 18 percent increase in the disease in those taking
word that most of us use to describe the Finnish finding is 'unexpected,'"
says Julie Buring, a research epidemiologist with the Harvard
adds that there are some problems with the study. Six years may
not be enough time to reverse years of damage from smoking, she
says. Also, because participants were smokers, there may have
been other detrimental factors involved. "That study doesn't
prove to me that antioxidants don't work," says Buring. "But
it does raise the suspicion that the benefits may not be as great
as we expected, or even that there might be some harm that was
not suspected before."
July came another disappointment: Researchers at Dartmouth University
found no lower risk of potentially precancerous colon polyps in
men who were given beta carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin C supplements.
you need supplements? Most doctors agree that the best way for
your body to get vitamins and minerals is to eat a well-balanced
diet that includes a minimum of five to nine servings of fruits
and vegetables a day.
fruit and vegetable is a storehouse of literally hundreds of antioxidants,
pro-oxidants, carcinogens, anticarcinogens--all of which tend
to balance each other out," says Victor Herbert, M.D., professor
of medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and
coauthor of The Vitamin Pushers: How the "Health Food"
Industry is Selling America a Bill of Goods (Prometheus Books,
New York, 1994, $26.95). Herbert argues that vitamin supplements
help some people and harm others, so the bottom line is a wash.
you are not eating a balanced diet, however, you may want to consider
a supplement. Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center
for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., says sometimes
it's just not realistic to say that adults are getting all the
necessary nutrients from food alone. Less than 20 percent of Americans
eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables.
much should you take? Whatever supplements you choose to take,
be sure to do so wisely. There may be side effects if you take
too large a dose.
example, Vitamin C taken at levels greater than 1,000 mg a day
may cause diarrhea. In his book, Dr. Cooper cautions against taking
daily doses of vitamin E at levels above 3,200 IU, which could
raise blood pressure and bring on headaches. More than 50,000
IU of beta carotene a day may turn your skin yellow.
are the current RDAs for adults: Vitamin C, 60 mg; vitamin E,
12 IU for women and 15 IU for men; and beta carotene/vitamin A,
4,000 IU for women and 5,000 IU for men. Fat-soluble vitamins
such as vitamins A, D, and E are measured in international units.
Water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, are expressed in either
milligrams or micrograms.