Antioxidant supplements – do you need them?
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that can help fight damaging free radicals in your body. Your body produces free radicals in response to the environment, stress, and pressure. Examples include when you exercise, digest food or are exposed to air pollution. Antioxidants are most abundant in plant foods, and include vitamins C, A and E, beta-carotene and lycopene.
A diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk of many diseases simply by mopping up damaging free radicals circulating in the blood stream. For example, men who eat a lot of lycopene (an antioxidant found in tomatoes) may be less likely to develop prostate cancer.
Not all free radicals are damaging, and some are even used to attack viruses or bacteria to protect us from harm. However, others can damage cells and contribute to conditions such as heart disease and some cancers.
Should you get antioxidants from food or take supplements?
It’s best to get all your nutrients, including antioxidants, from your food rather than from supplements. Taking a supplement won’t make you healthy if your overall diet doesn’t meet healthy eating guidelines.
Are there any benefits of taking supplements?
The only reason to take supplements is if you have a deficiency. For example, vegetarians might need iron or vitamin B12, or people with osteoporosis might need extra calcium and vitamin D.
If you follow a healthy balanced diet, and you have no vitamin deficiencies, adding supplements is unlikely to make any difference to your health. In fact, some supplements can be toxic in large doses so it’s best to get your nutritional needs from food.
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Eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits can help ensure you get a diverse range of antioxidants to optimise your health. There are hundreds of antioxidants in not only fruit and vegetables, but nuts, seeds, olive oil and wholegrains.
You can get the following antioxidants from these food sources:
- Vitamin A – liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk and egg yolks
- Vitamin C – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
- Vitamin E – almonds, avocado, leafy greens
- Carotenoids – apricots, asparagus, broccoli
- Zinc – beef, oysters, pumpkin seeds
- Selenium – brazil nuts, fish, shellfish
- Beta-carotene – carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, spinach
- Lycopene – tomato, watermelon, grapefruit.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines outline the types of foods you should be eating to reduce your risk of diet-related conditions and chronic diseases.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend you take antioxidant supplements if your diet is inadequate.
Read more about foods that can help reduce stress: The three best healthy stress foods
What happens if you take too many antioxidant supplements?
If you take antioxidant supplements in high doses, you could damage your body.
Some antioxidant supplements may:
1. Reduce your exercise performance
Taking too many antioxidant supplements, especially vitamins C and E can interfere with how your body adapts to exercise and even reduce some of the health benefits of exercise.
2. Increase your risk for some cancers
Several research studies have shown that taking antioxidant supplements like beta-carotene doesn’t reduce the risk of getting many types of cancer. It also doesn’t reduce the risk of dying from cancer. Studies have even shown that antioxidant supplements may even increase the risk of certain cancers. Some can interfere with cancer treatment medications and therapies so check with your doctor before you start taking any.
3. Cause birth defects
Some antioxidants supplements such as Vitamin A may even increase the risk of birth defects if taken in high doses. If you are pregnant, always check with your doctor before you start taking any regular supplements.
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Prepare nutritious meals to increase your intake of antioxidants
We have a wide range of easy-to-prepare recipe ideas on our website, using nutritious, healthy ingredients, that can help you meet Australian dietary guidelines. You can also learn more about the link between good nutrition and health.
Antioxidants – Better Health Channel
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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