Thoughts on superfoods (and antioxidants) – Part 2


Read Part 1

Not all free radicals are bad, and in fact, they are actually critical to life – for example, phagocytes in the body’s immune system rely heavily on producing free radicals to destroy invading bacteria (pathogens).

Nitric oxide (NO) is used as an intercellular semaphore (or messenger) to modulate blood flow, thrombosis and neural activity – and NO is also used as a general defence mechanism to eliminate tumours and cells damaged by pathogens.

It also seems a low level of free radicals is needed to induce mitosis, the important process of cell division. Overall, the body depends on having a moderate level of free radicals to function properly.

Down with (some) antioxidants!

And interestingly, ingesting too many antioxidants can also be bad news. A small study on 40 people in Germany found that antioxidant supplements reduce some of the benefits of exercise, in particular the sensitivity of the body to insulin (which is usually a dividend of exercising).

A US trial of antioxidant supplements called the Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) involving over 18,000 smokers (and people exposed to asbestos) had to be halted 21 months early in 1996 because subjects ingesting high doses of beta-carotene and Vitamin A had a very significant 28% increase in the incidence of lung cancers.

This confirmed the earlier findings of a Finnish study on over 29,000 smokers who developed an 18% increase in lung cancer rates after ingesting antioxidant supplements – the main culprit appears again to be beta-carotene.

This does not leave Vitamin E off the hook though. The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) conducted on over 35,000 men across the United States found a 17% increase in prostate cancer rates in men taking Vitamin E supplements – the interesting thing is that prostate cancer rates accelerated only after a year or more of taking Vitamin E supplements, so long-term exposure to certain supplements appears to be a possible factor.

To sum it up succinctly, one of the major (and terse) conclusions of the SELECT study is: “Dietary supplementation with vitamin E significantly increased the risk of prostate cancer among healthy men.”

Now what?

So where does all this information leave us? Well, hopefully with a little less enthusiasm for overdosing on “superfoods” and especially antioxidant supplements – the evidence suggests that they won’t fix any major health issues induced by bad habits, and indeed might make things worse.

If, for example, you are inclined to smoke or pig out daily on oily fried foods, you are simply very likely heading for chronic Oxidative Stress (OS), and ingesting additionally some green tea or superfood supplement pills probably would not prevent faster ageing and OS-related diseases.

In short, some sanity in life choices and diet are the keys to a healthy (or at least, healthier) life.

Factors known to help the body counter OS are quite straightforward. Life choice factors include avoiding unnecessary poisonous compounds such as tobacco smoke, car fumes, air pollutants, insecticides, inorganic fertilisers, household chemicals, unnecessary skin or hair bleaching treatments, et cetera.

Basically, use some common sense and do not go around inhaling, coming in contact with or ingesting nasty environmental factors such as dirty air and icky chemicals.

Regarding diet, if you are fond of tasty but less healthy foods (perhaps even junk food), then a suggestion is to cut down on portion sizes and substitute the missing calories with some vegetables if possible.

The reason is outcomes from hundreds of research papers on combating OS suggests strongly: Eat more vegetables – and then eat some more.

Also, eat more fruits – any kind of fruit. The EU recommends eating five portions of different vegetables and fruits every day – and if you can, try to double that number as research at Imperial College has found significantly better health benefits from 10 different portions a day.

The reasons are not known – and it may be vegetables and fruits have as yet unidentified antioxidants or compounds which enhance the efficacy of the known antioxidants.

There is as yet no definitive list of all antioxidants or antioxidant adjuvants found in food items – almost all research has been focused on the main known antioxidants.

As an example, polyphenols such as hydroxybenzoic acids, anthocyanins, flavonols, flavones, flavanones, isoflavones, hydroxycinnamic acids, monomeric flavanols, et cetera, have been identified in various fruits and quite a few have been found to be effective antioxidants.

So if you are really looking for superfoods, it would appear that they have always been around you – just go to your local market and eat as large a variety of vegetables and fruits as possible and this would seem to be the best superfood known to science at the moment.

I appreciate that such comments might sound glib to modern workers who cannot spare the time and effort to buy so many different foods – so a suggestion is to stock up on frozen vegetables and fruits, as even 2.5 portions a day confer some discernible benefits.

As a personal example, instead of a 300g steak, I might now order a 200g steak plus some broccoli and spinach sides. It actually makes meals tastier due to the variety and contrasts of the various foods.

And for meals at home, it is really easy to microwave up, for example, frozen peas and chopped carrots as complementary dishes. This way, the body gets helpful doses of natural antioxidants for very little effort.

Also, be aware of what you are REALLY ingesting. A pot marketed with pretty labels like “low-fat”, “added vitamins”, “no added …”, “free from …” actually does not mean much – read the nutritional panel on the packaging.

Then you might realise that only a few percent of a pot of “healthy” fruit compote is actually fruit with the rest made up of sugar, artificial flavours, stabilisers, preservatives and processed gunk. However, please note that this is not meant to be disparaging against all packaged foods.

In fairness, there are food suppliers who do make the effort to provide healthy convenience foods – it is a matter of identifying good suppliers who one can trust and reading the nutritional panels is a positive way to start.


If you are one of those who believe in expensive pseudoscience stuff like emu oil, goat milk whey, fermented cod liver oil, et cetera, I have only one question: Why?

Homo sapiens have never needed the stuff for over a million years and people living in the small region of Acciaroli, Italy (where between 10 to 15% of the population is over a hundred years old), have never heard of them either and would probably laugh at the idea of ingesting these products.

This incredulous reaction would be the same for most of the people of Japan, the country with the highest statistical probability of living to be 100 years old (according to the WHO).

So a good question would be: what do these old people eat? The answer appears to be, lots of stuff. Despite their wide geographical differences, they generally consume a broad range of local vegetables, legumes, fish, and in the case of the Acciarolians, fruits, olive oil, local game and rosemary.

The Acciarolians also apparently indulge in a lot of sex, an activity rather rewarding with the right partner but regrettably not so much so with the wrong companion – that is just a subjective hypothesis by the way.

What both populations have in common is that they both eat less red meat than average, seldom touch industrially-processed foods, and certainly they do not ingest any superfood supplements.

Studies into the pockets of the world where people live longer lifespans than average have not yet come up with any hugely significant conclusions – but a few plausible theories have arisen from the research.

One is that ageing is directly related to OS and providing the body with simple nutrients and natural antioxidants is sufficient to mitigate some of the effects of OS.

Another looked into the calorific intake of various old-age populations, in particular the Okinawans, who have the longest lifespans of all the Japanese – and it appears that they tend to ingest foods with fewer calories, less than 1 calorie for each gram of food (the Western average is over 50% higher).

It appears that some populations have suffered from severe famines in the past and their dietary patterns have adapted to historic periods of food scarcity – and the theory is that a calorie restricted diet can promote longevity (it is a long, complex hypothesis perhaps suited for another article when more validated evidence is available).

Another theory looked into the holistic aspects of living in various locations – a common factor is that old age populations tend to live in relatively stress-free environments and the good fortune of having a variety of nutritious foods available in their local diets may have augmented their lifespans.

Studies have also found that advantageous genetic adaptations of mitochondrial DNA may also promote longevity.

What has also been recognised is that recent lifestyle changes brought to Okinawa in the guise of American supermarkets and fast food chains have already decreased the lifespans of modern Okinawans – so it would seem that the added fats, sugars, salt and other components of modern diets is having a measurable, deleterious effect on longevity, at least in Okinawa.

However, to be objective, I have to caution that correlation does not mean causality (even though the same pattern has been observed in other communities) – and it could be that a modern lifestyle (with side effects such as pollution, stress, changes in working patterns, et cetera) might be having an adverse effect.

Binges and why I do them

My personal view is that food should be enjoyed, even to excess occasionally if necessary – it is simply a major part of enjoying life.

As such, I am likely to binge on really good food and wine perhaps two to three times a month – however, I also allow time for the body to recover by having lots of sensible food in between the benders.

Perhaps some “clean eating” purists would not approve but this is part of my approach to nutrition, having done some research in trying to understand the subject rather than behave like dietary despots who have more opinions than knowledge or sense.

As a little aside, on my recent return to the UK, I was compelled to eat at some fast food chains for convenience – and the result was not good, especially for the intestines.

A lot of modern fast food now reminds me of the prayers before mealtimes at the home of a very bad Catholic cook: “O Lord, for what we are to receive, may it pass through us peacefully. Amen.”

Source: The Star

Photo: The Star/Filepic

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