Some vitamins may be radical fighters


February 04, 1992|By Colleen Pierre, R.D.

Increasingly, antioxidants have been in the press. They're beginning to make me question my belief that you can get all the vitamins you need from food.

About 10 years worth of research indicates that "free radicals" may be responsible for some of the diseases of aging, and that antioxidants may inhibit their effects.

Free radicals are reactive molecules produced in the body in response to ultraviolet light and pollutants such as cigarette smoke, auto exhaust and ozone which interfere with our ability to repair damaged cells.

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C, E and beta carotene, appear to stabilize free radical activity.

A recent issue of Environmental Nutrition newsletter notes that research has linked vitamins C and E to decreased risk of cancer, cataracts and heart disease. Vitamin E may also alleviate symptoms of Parkinson's disease. And beta carotene has attracted attention for its role in cancer prevention.

This is weighty news for the Baltimore area, where cancer rates are the highest in the country.

Some researchers think vitamin supplements are a good idea. Others warn that optimal levels have not been established yet.

But if you live in Baltimore and have only one life to live, how long TTC are you willing to wait for the exact answer?

First, it's important to realize that most research has been done in animals and in test tubes. Only a few studies have been done to establish maximum safe doses of these vitamins or to evaluate the interaction of high doses of several vitamins, and how that affects total body function.

We do know very high doses of vitamin C (above 3,000 mg) can produce rashes and diarrhea, reduce blood clotting and increase risk of kidney stones.

We also know mega-doses of some minerals can produce deficiencies of other minerals because of competition for absorption sites. Could the same thing happen with vitamins?

Another thing we know is that the human thing might, and probably will, happen: Because we've had our vitamin "insurance" for the day, we give up on healthy eating.

Let's face it. Fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods are our best natural sources of vitamins E, C and beta carotene. And they're naturally low in fat and high in fiber, two important elements in further decreasing cancer risk.

Unfortunately, they also head America's "most neglected" list. We need to change our habits. When I look at the whole picture, eating well still seems to be our best bet.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and director of Eating Together in Baltimore

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