MYTH: Antioxidants are all vitamins.
There are thousands of antioxidants, but relatively few of them are vitamins. Some are minerals and others are enzymes, which are protein molecules that facilitate chemical reactions necessary for cells to function properly. Vitamins C and E, the minerals selenium and zinc, and pigments such as carotenoids are all promoted for their antioxidant abilities. Polyphenols (or flavonoids), the most plentiful and common form of antioxidants, are found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, tea, chocolate, and red wine.
What antioxidants have in common is their ability to block the action of free radicals: unstable chemical fragments that can wreak havoc on healthy components in your body’s cells. This damage can cause cells to grow and
reproduce abnormally, part of a dangerous chain reaction. In time, that process is thought to play a role in chronic conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Your body produces free radicals during exercise and when converting food into energy. And your body generates antioxidants to help stabilize them. Other factors—cigarette smoke, alcohol consumption, and exposure to sunlight and environmental contaminants like pesticides—trigger the production of more free radicals, which can potentially overwhelm your body’s natural defenses. Antioxidants in the food you eat, such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, can come to the rescue.
Substances known as antioxidants also have other beneficial effects, including combatting inflammation.
MYTH: All antioxidants are created equal.
“Different antioxidants fight different free radicals,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the Antioxidant Research Lab at Tufts University. “There is an antioxidant defense network. It’s like an army; you have generals and colonels and lieutenants. Each one has a different job.”
And they work well together. For example, vitamin C recycles vitamin E. Once a molecule of vitamin E neutralizes a free radical, vitamin C converts that molecule of E back to its antioxidant form, allowing it to combat more free radicals. “So if you take a lot of vitamin E but your vitamin C intake is low, you won’t see much antioxidant benefit,” Blumberg says.
The synergistic effect among thousands of antioxidants is a major reason doctors, dietitians, and others advise people to eat a wide range of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Even though scientists have yet to pinpoint all the ways those healthy compounds protect against disease, many observational studies suggest that people who consume a greater amount of antioxidant-rich foods have a lower risk of certain diseases than people who don’t.
For example, a study published in the October 2012 American Journal of Medicine that followed more than 32,000 Swedish women for 10 years concluded that those whose diets contained the most antioxidants had a 20 percent lower risk of a heart attack compared with women who consumed the least.