Hailed as ace defenses against disease


June 23, 1993|By Ginger Munsch Crichton | Ginger Munsch Crichton,"The Antioxidant Pocket Counter" by Gail L. BeckerDallas Morning News

Think dark-green, orange and deep-yellow when you choose your fruits and vegetables, and you'll go a long way toward getting a healthful dose of important antioxidant vitamins.

Study after study confirms the disease-fighting role of the antioxidants: beta carotene (the parent of vitamin A), vitamin C and vitamin E. These powerhouse nutrients appear to neutralize molecules called oxygen-free radicals, prime suspects behind cancer, heart disease and aging.

But many consumers may not know which foods to eat, or how much, to get enough antioxidants.

The simplest solution might seem to be just popping a vitamin pill or two. And in fact, that may be the only way to get enough vitamin E to have a protective effect. But researchers and dietitians say it's relatively easy -- and important -- to get lots of beta carotene and vitamin C from foods. One reason is that foods contain substances that are believed to enhance or supplement the effects of vitamins.

"It's much better for people to eat a diet that's rich in fruits and vegetables that give you lots of vitamin A and vitamin C, because they're not only getting those two specific antioxidant vitamins, they're getting a wealth of other wonderful things . . . including fiber," says Jo Ann Carson, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Beta carotene is concentrated in "the very dark green and deep yellow, orangey fruits and vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe, other kinds of greens like mustard greens or turnip greens, apricots, sweet potatoes," says Neva Cochran, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Prime sources of vitamin C, she said, include citrus fruits -- such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes -- as well as broccoli, peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe and kiwi.

Vitamin E -- which two major studies published recently linked to a significantly reduced risk of heart attacks -- is found in vegetable oils, seeds, wheat germ and nuts. The studies tracked more than 120,000 people who took vitamin E supplements of at least 100 International Units (IU) per day.

How much is too much?

It's often hard, though, to tell exactly how much of these nutrients is in various foods. Fresh produce doesn't carry nutrition labeling, and even packaged fruits and vegetables aren't likely to contain enough details on antioxidant vitamins to be helpful.

But a new book called "The Antioxidant Pocket Counter" (Times Books, $3.99) by registered dietitian Gail L. Becker provides counts for beta carotene, vitamins A, C and E, fiber, fat, and calories for dozens of foods.

Even so, you have to decide how much of the antioxidants you want to consume. Though researchers are finding strong links between high doses of the vitamins and disease prevention, they haven't yet determined optimal daily intake.

It's clear, though, that the amounts needed for disease-fighting are considerably higher than the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (U.S. RDAs, soon to become RDIs or Reference Daily Intakes), designed as generous minimums needed to prevent deficiency diseases.

Research so far indicates that the optimal level of vitamin C may be 500 to 1,000 milligrams a day (compared to the U.S. RDA of 60 milligrams). For vitamin E, the optimal level may be 100 to 800 IU (133 to 533 milligrams); the U.S. RDA is 30 IU, or 20 milligrams.

For beta carotene (for which no RDA has been set), the optimal level may be as low as 5 milligrams a day or, some suggest, more in the range of 25 to 30 milligrams.

Can you achieve those ranges through foods? With a little menu planning, you can certainly boost your vitamin C and beta carotene intake.

Carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins are among the single best sources of beta carotene. A half-cup of cooked sweet potato plus a couple of raw carrots would put you close to 25 milligrams a day.

For vitamin C, a cup of orange juice, a cup of strawberries and a half-cup of broccoli would put you close to 200 milligrams.

A few foods are excellent sources of both beta carotene and vitamin C. Consider cantaloupe (8 milligrams beta carotene and 195 milligrams vitamin C per half a fruit), sweet potato (17 milligrams beta carotene and 32 milligrams vitamin C per half-cup) or raw red pepper (2 milligrams beta carotene, 95 milligrams vitamin C per half-cup).

Vitamin E's the tough one. Because it's concentrated in fats and oils, it would be hard to get a high doses without a whopping amount of calories and fat (50 tablespoons of mayonnaise would get you 300 milligrams of vitamin E.)

Sprinkling wheat germ on your food and eating unrefined grain products or fortified cereals can at least boost your vitamin E consumption over what it normally would be.

For those who want to supplement their foods with vitamin pills, dietitians say that's probably OK -- but be aware that mega-doses of some vitamins can produce toxic effects.

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