Monday, February 16, 2009

Are vitamins bad for you?

One of the hardest notions to shake is that taking antioxidant vitamins (A, C, and E) will reduce the chances of developing what we call "degenerative" diseases: things like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. We all know that antioxidants are good for us, because the oxidation theory of aging--free radical molecules wreaking havoc on our DNA--is so well accepted. But studies keep throwing cold water on the idea that vitamins are the key. The latest is a study from the Fred Hutchinson cancer center here in Seattle, out this past weekend. This study, called VITAL (VITamins And Lifestyle) looked at not just the traditional vitamin supplements but also lutein and lycopene. Across most categories, cancer risk was actually higher in those using supplements. This is consistent with many previous studies but somehow vitamin sales seem to be unaffected.
So what does this have to do with wine? Recall the whole wine and health story started with the identification of what we now know as the Mediterranean Diet, which includes healthy servings of fruits and vegetables. Initially it was believed that the antioxidant vitamins in the diet were the key to its relationship to lower risk of degenerative diseases, but the studies conducted to confirm this found no benefit to vitamin supplements. Only then did attention turn to the role of daily, moderate wine consumption. When this variable was independently studied, the health benefits of wine began to be appreciated. We now know that the antioxidants in wine (such as resveratrol) are much more potent, but we also know that they aren't the whole story. So spend your money on a bottle of good red wine instead of a bottle of vitamins.

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