The free radicals in our bodies from pollution, alcohol, stress, tobacco and even exercise, lead lots of us to pop high-dose antioxidant pills – now it turns out they could actually be making us less fit
When Good Ideas Go Haywire When we first started to hear about free radicals – a kind of ‘hyperactive’ cell-zapping chemical – and antioxidants, which neutralise them, it seemed a no brainer to hit the chemists and bulk-buy the concentrated from of antioxidants. After all, who really has time to eat five, seven, or even ten different kinds of fruit and vegetable every day? The problem is that the long-term research done over the last few years points to the pills not working as they’re intended to. Large, randomised clinical trials performed to find out if antioxidant supplementation prevented cancer seem to have drawn a blank. (More research is needed into their use in people actually suffering cancer.)
High dose antioxidant tablets have no effect – or maybe a negative effect on your health
Why Fitter People Pop More Pills But what about free radicals and exercise? One of the main reasons for antioxidant supplementation has been for people worried about the aftereffects of their free-radical generating workouts. Otherwise, what’s the point of sweating it for the health benefits when the free radicals you generate could be ageing you, or even raising your cancer risk? But this is where some serious misunderstandings come in, says genetics expert and scientist Craig Pickering, who used to supplement with antioxidants in his previous career as a sprinter and bobsleigh athlete.
‘When I was a Team GB Olympic athlete, I was just like: “Yes, I’ll take those antioxidant supplements, that's great.” Now I think that's absolutely the wrong way to go about things.’ Pickering’s work with DNA Fit showed him that while some of us do have genetic requirements for higher levels of some antioxidants, the biggest issue is that we just don’t eat enough natural antioxidants, in the form of fruit and veg. ‘All the research indicates that the vitamins that you get from fruit and veg have an effect that vitamins from tablets don't have – it suggests if you take high dose antioxidant tablets, that has no effect, or maybe even a negative effect on your health.’
The Truth About Free Radicals It may be ironic that exercise (apparently good for you) generates free radicals (apparently bad for you), but it’s another level of irony to hear that these free radicals actually play a role in making us fitter. ‘It's those free radicals that, when we do aerobic training, promote quite a lot of the adaptations to exercise. They cause you to grow more mitochondria and regulate other enzymes. They also enable your body to get very good at dealing with those free radicals, so exercise itself helps your body to become very good at dealing with free radicals – it has an overall antioxidant effect,’ says Pickering.
A cocktail of antioxidants reduced power output, increased muscle burn and reduced fitness
Why Popping Pills May Crush Your Performance A new study published in 2017 by Stephen J. Ives, Department of Health and Exercise Sciences Skidmore College (NY), showed that cyclists in a 5km time trial who supplemented with a cocktail of antioxidants beforehand, actually reduced their power output, increased muscle burn and tiredness, and made them less able to process oxygen. Not only is popping pills not proven to battle free radicals, but it’s actually upsetting the balance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body, says Pickering. ‘You can be undoing, or reducing the good work you do in the gym, or going for a run, by going home and having multivitamin or antioxidant tablets.’
What You Need To Do Instead No one is dismissing the vital role that antioxidants themselves have in our diet – without them the free radicals would run riot – it’s just that a pill bottle isn’t the place to find an effective source. ‘You need to be looking at having as much vegetables and fruit as possible. If you have food the antioxidant doses are much lower and they come with complementary nutrients – it’s all fairly nicely balanced,’ says Pickering. It’s common for doctors to recommend your ‘5 A Day’ portions of fruit and veg but that’s still pretty modest – if you’re training hard and in a stressful job (most are, after all) then you should be shooting for seven or even 10 portions a day. It sounds like a lot but avoid skipping breakfast and there is a way to do it, without living in a grocery store – check out the meal plan below…
WHAT NEXT? If you think it’s a massive ask to eat 7-10 different kinds of fruit and veg in a normal day, then think again – this sample meal plan includes a grab ’n go breakfast, healthy snacks, a 20-minute evening meal, and totals 11 different kinds of fruit and veg, as well as two kinds of seeds. Remember a portion of fruit or veg is only 80g, so it’s easier than you think to fit lots of them into your day…
Breakfast: Protein-Packed Blended Smoothie with 20-40g whey or vegan protein powder; oats; one banana; one kiwi, 80g fresh or frozen spinach; cold-milled linseed
Mid-morning snack: One Orange
Lunch: Chicken Salad with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, radish, pumpkin seeds, baby potatoes and olive oil dressing.
Mid-afternoon snack: One Apple
Dinner: Bangers ’n’ Mash with sweet potato and carrot mash, and grilled meat or vegan sausages – ready in 20 mins.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Craig Pickering works with DNA Fit