Starving Dietitian

Nutritious Lies: Antioxidants

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There’s a dangerous lie slithering its way through the world of “health” food. With a forked tongue it preys on vulnerable consumers and it’s time we stomp it out.

That lie, is antioxidants.

Fair warning, parts of this get quiet technical. You can always skim those sections if you want the simply complex version.

So why are antioxidants a lie? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they don’t serve a purpose. In fact they are incredibly, unquestionably, matter-of-factly necessary for your health. The problem lies in where we get them.

For pretense you should know that in addition to your genome, every gene in your body, you also have an epigenome. If your genes are the letters on a page, your epigenome is kind of like the subtext. Even though a sentence may read one way, the subtext might offer an alternative translation. The result could be an entirely different sentence! This is your epigenome. With Histone modification and DNA methylation, genes can be switched on and off without permanently changing them. The study of this is called epigenetics, a topic you’ll hear much more about in the next decade.

So back to the lie. The basic assumption most people have is that if some are good, more is better. It’s this assumption that’s led us to bottled, packaged, and most disturbingly waffle versions of antioxidants. FiberPlus-Antioxidants-Chocolate-ChipWhat we’re seeing now is that this is flat out wrong.

Emerging research is revealing remarkable new facts about antioxidants.

1) Dietary antioxidants only offer slight benefits.

Despite all the product labels and phony advertising, the type and amount present in supplements is nearly worthless. Part for part they are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of free radicals in your body. Oxygen itself, vital for life, acts like a free radical by oxidizing things, and you breathe a lot of it. Unless you plan on eating lethal amounts of Vitamin E or overdosing on Vitamin C, there’s no way you’ll make a dent in your radicals. [1]

2) Too much can be a bad thing.

There are many types of antioxidants, some are referred to as “suicidal” because they extinguish free-radicals but are used up in the process. Others are non-terminal, meaning they can be recycled. Many of the ones you get from supplements, or even fruits, are non-terminal. This would seem to a good thing, but non-terminal antioxidants can actually become pro-oxidants if there’s too many in one place. I’m saying the very thing you’re using to reduce free radicals can themselves act like free radicals. This is a bad thing. [2] [3]

3) Self-made antioxidants are better than eaten ones.

Remember I told you about the epigenome? Well it turns out that many of the healthiest foods we know of like blueberries, curcumin, and green tea (all high in phytochemicals) modify our epigenome to create more antioxidants within the body. Many of these self-made antioxidants are both suicidal and extinguish radicals something like 100x more effectively than the ones you eat. Certain ones, like glutathione, are the master antioxidants of the body, being present in every single cell.

So where do we go from here?

First, stop trying to get all your antioxidants from a pill. There is hardly any reward and legitimate risk by doing this, Fruit+ I’m looking at you. You’re probably sick of hearing this but eating whole unprocessed foods is one of the few ways you’re likely to turn on the right genes. Now you’re probably dying to know which foods have proven epigenetic effects. Lucky for you, I found a picture. [4] [5] [6]

Epigenetics Image

Be good to each other, the nation needs it.

-J. Iufer


[1] Moreira, P. I.; Smith, M. A.; Zhu, X.; Honda, K.; Lee, H. G.; Aliev, G.; Perry, G. Oxidative damage and Alzheimer’s disease: are antioxidant therapies useful? Drug News Perspect 18:13-9; 2005.

[2] Podmore, I. D.; Griffiths, H. R.; Herbert, K. E.; Mistry, N.; Mistry, P.; Lunec, J. Vitamin C exhibits pro-oxidant properties. Nature 392:559; 1998.

[3] Bjelakovic, G.; Nikolova, D.; Gluud, L. L.; Simonetti, R. G.; Gluud, C. Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention: systematic review and meta-analysis. Jama 297:842-57; 2007.

[4] Wu, L.; Noyan Ashraf, M. H.; Facci, M.; Wang, R.; Paterson, P. G.; Ferrie, A.; Juurlink, B. H. Dietary approach to attenuate oxidative stress, hypertension, and inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101:7094-9; 2004.

[5] Juurlink, B. H. Therapeutic potential of dietary phase 2 enzyme inducers in ameliorating diseases that have an underlying inflammatory component. Can J Physiol Pharmacol 79:266-82; 2001.

[6] Joe, B.; Vijaykumar, M.; Lokesh, B. R. Biological properties of curcumin-cellular and molecular mechanisms of action. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 44:97-111; 2004.

Endogenous antioxidant (melatonin) vs. Vitamin C (potentially pro-oxidant)

Hormesis and phytonutrient regulation of antioxidant pathways

Synergistic effects of phytochemicals


  1. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this useful info with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Solar Radiant Skin | The Starving Dietitian

  3. Pingback: The Gene Prescription | The Starving Dietitian

  4. Pingback: Bitter Food Blunder | Starving Dietitian

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