Antioxidants are naturally occurring molecules believed to fight against the action of free radicals — originally thought to help prevent diseases like heart disease and cancer. Although fruits and vegetables are a great source of antioxidants, an oversimplified view of the power of antioxidants has caused a boom in the vitamin and dietary supplement industry, with antioxidant vitamins A, C and E topping the list. In fact, 2012 sales in the U.S. totaled nearly $23 billion.
Antioxidant supplements are big business. But can they help your health?
A Complicated Relationship
Despite their growing popularity in the media and on product packaging, there isn’t sufficient evidence that taking antioxidant supplements will improve your health or reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, “very limited amount of data suggests they may actually be harmful,” said Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
The relationship between vitamin supplements and heart health isn’t entirely understood, and some ingredients could have a negative impact on your health. For example, in one study, people took beta-carotene to try reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease.
“It turns out beta-carotene doesn’t actually decrease the risk, and in smokers it actually increased their risk of lung cancer,” Dr. Lichtenstein said. In addition, dietary supplements can have unintended interactions with other medications.
How to Help Your Heart
Instead of taking supplements, the American Heart Association recommends adopting a healthy eating pattern that includes healthy food choices as a way to get all the nutrients you need. The types of foods you eat, and the amount you eat, can affect multiple risk factors, including your cholesterol, weight and blood pressure. To further reduce your risk, don’t smoke and incorporate regular physical activity into your life.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, limited in saturated and trans fats, added sugars and includes low fat and fat free dairy products and high fiber, whole grains. Watch your sodium intake; the sample diet pattern below can help. One of the best reasons to include fruits and vegetables is not just their antioxidants, but because they also contribute a number of important nutrients that most people don’t get enough of, including folate, magnesium, potassium and dietary fiber, as well as vitamins A, C, and K. And they are naturally low in saturated fat and calories!
Look for our Heart-Check mark when grocery shopping to find foods that meet our criteria. And visit our nutrition center for more information on dining out and heart-healthy recipes.
As part of a healthy dietary pattern and healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, an adult consuming 2,000 calories daily should include:
- Fruits and vegetables: At least 4.5 servings a day
- Fish (preferably oily fish): At least two 3.5-ounce servings a week
- Fiber-rich whole grains: At least three 1-ounce-equivalent servings a day
- Sodium: Less than 1,500 mg a day
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: No more than 450 calories (36 ounces) a week
These recommendations are also helpful when planning a healthy diet:
- Nuts, legumes and seeds: At least 4 servings a week
- Processed meats: No more than 2 servings a week
- Saturated fat: Less than 7 percent of total energy intake
If you have questions about your specific nutritional needs talk with a dietitian or your healthcare provider.