It's pills vs. supper, and supper wins for this round


April 17, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Until this week I had been losing a supper-table argument.

I had been arguing against an extra course, a pill course, being added to the family meal. I was worried that in the name of good health, I would soon have to pop pills containing big doses of vitamins A and E, members of a class of chemicals known as antioxidants.

I believe that all vitamins should appear the way God made them, namely, in the form of delicious food and drink. I was opposed to tossing down tablets.

The key to good health, I argued, was at the dinner table, not at the medicine counter.

The trouble was that the advocate of the antioxidant course, my wife, appeared to have the data to back up the claim that taking supplemental doses of vitamin A and E was good for me.

But then the tide turned. A respected study came out saying that taking pills of vitamin A and E did not apparently guard against cancer and heart disease. I was elated.

I waved the newspaper at my wife, pointing to the story explaining how a study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Public Health Institute in Finland upset prevailing wisdom about vitamin supplements.

Some of the findings even raised the possibility that taking the vitamin supplements could have harmful effects, increasing the chances of lung cancer and heart disease.

Behaving like a kid who had been proven right in an argument with his sister, I smirked at my wife and said, "Told ya."

In response, my wife took the high road. She said that essentially what this study showed was that more studies were needed to see if the findings were valid.

Moreover, she pointed out that the people taking the pills, 29,000 Finnish men, were long-term smokers. It will be interesting to see, she said, whether the effects will be the same on nonsmokers who take vitamin supplements.

It seemed to me there was another explanation. The men in this study were age 50 and up. Maybe this study was saying that once a guy hits 50, not even antioxidants can save him. I did not hear anybody say this. But I did not want to think about it.

What I did hear the scientists who conducted the study say in television interviews was that science sometimes moves in halting and seemingly contradictory ways. It seemed like a valid point to me. And it also seemed that, until other studies are completed, it is highly unlikely that the vitamin pills will soon show up at supper.

While I am uncomfortable popping pills, I am fond of the story that advocates of the antioxidants use to describe what goes on in our bodies --a story of the forces of good battling the forces of evil.

As I understand the drama, free radicals are molecules that can injure our genes, leading to cancer. They can wreak other forms of havoc as well, building up the plaque in our arteries. Free radicals are bad actors.

Antioxidants, like vitamins E and A, are the good guys. They mop up free radicals. Like most folks, I am all for the good guys whipping the bad guys. For me, the question is how to get the forces of good into the body.

I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, chomping on fruits and vegetables. Before the Finnish study, some authorities were saying that the only effective way to get the right amount of antioxidants into your body was to take supplemental vitamin pills. Now I think the chompers are back in vogue.

I prefer to up my antioxidant intake by chomping on watermelons, cantaloupe, carrots and nectarines. These foods are rich in the plant form of Vitamin A known as carotenoids. Tomatoes, lettuce and peaches also pack good amounts of this good guy.

I found this information in "The Antioxidant Vitamin Counter" (Pocket Books), a $6 paperback by Annette B. Natow and Jo-Ann Heslin. The section listed the vitamin A, C, and E content of the 20 most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables.

Nuts, especially toasted almonds, were good sources of vitamin E, the book said. And so, thanks to the latest antioxidant research, when I sit at the dinner table, I am a happy man.

Instead of fighting free radicals by chewing on a dusty vitamin tablet, I can instead munch on some toasted almonds. That is the prevailing wisdom. Until the next study comes out.

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