Antioxidants. Should You Put our Money Where Your Mouth Is?

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

You’ve probably heard in the news about the health benefits of red wine and other antioxidant-rich foods. The news reports tout the benefits of antioxidants, and may make you feel better about having that third glass of red wine. But do these compounds really cut the risk for cancers of the colon, rectum, and other gastrointestinal tract  tumors?

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Read on to find out if that cranberry cheesecake is reducing your cancer risk — after all, cranberries have more antioxidants than spinach or broccoli.  And bear in mind, translating test tube experimental results into health benefits in the human petri dish is a difficult proposition.

What Are Antioxidants and How Do They Cut Your Cancer Risk?

Free radicals are molecules that can damage DNA and other cells in your body. Many scientists believe they play a key role in the development of cancer, as well as a number of other health conditions. Environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, pesticides and other airborne or food borne pollutants, can lead to an elevated concentration of free radicals in the body.

Antioxidants seem to have the ability to neutralize free radicals, preventing them from damaging cells and stopping their ability to cause serious health issues. Some antioxidants are naturally produced in the body. Others however, must come from outside sources. These dietary antioxidants are found in abundant quantities in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

What Does the Research Say About Your Holiday Feast

So … Is it actually good for you to have that extra serving of antioxidant-rich red wine and pumpkin pie? Scientists have researched the effect of antioxidants on health, and found that a one-time splurge is unlikely to help you reduce your cancer risk. In fact, there is no evidence to support the theory that even long term antioxidant supplements reduce the risk of colon or rectal cancer.

There is no doubt that a diet with a variety of vegetables and fruits is the healthiest option, and that a healthy diet may reduce the risk of a number of common cancers. Some antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, and flavonoids, seem to help lower the risk of some types of cancer.

However, other effects of eating fruits and vegetables may influence your gastrointestinal health in a more beneficial way.  Increased fiber intake for example, can help keep you regular and keep your colon healthy. However, a recent meta-analysis found no evidence that antioxidant supplements helped prevent colorectal cancer, or affected mortality related to gastrointestinal cancer.

And when it comes to having a cocktail or more wine, it is imperative to note that alcohol consumption leads to a moderate increase in colorectal cancer risks. According to a study published in the Medical Journal of Addiction, epidemiologic evidence also shows a causal relationship with other cancers including those of the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, and breast. This risk easily outweighs any positive effects of antioxidants.

The Bottom Line

While your holiday feast won’t help you, a few seasonal splurges over the holidays is not likely to hurt you either. As long as it’s limited to a glass of wine or the occasional cocktail, enjoy yourself without worrying too much about your cancer risk. Chronic, or binge drinking poses a much larger health hazard. The antioxidants in red wine won’t reduce your colon cancer risk, but alcohol is still a better option than eggnog or boiled custard. Both of these rich holiday cocktails are cream-based, full of sugar, and clock in at well over 200 calories per cup.

At the table, it certainly won’t hurt you to feast on foods high in antioxidants, since they are often among the healthiest foods available. Look for dishes with tomatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli, green beans or corn. Sweet potatoes are also a good option.  But beware of your portion sizes if they are covered in brown sugar, marshmallow, and other goodies. Berries, cherries, and apples also have a lot of vitamins – but try to hold yourself to only one piece of pie.

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