Tag Archives: Supplements

The Acai Berry: A Superfood?

Q: What are the health benefits of Acai?

A: The Acai berry is a small, round, black-purple fruit that grows on a certain species of palm tree found in Central and South America. You may have seen acai juices, snacks, powders and capsules flood the market in the past few years, as companies increasingly tout the berry as a “superfood,” packed with antioxidants that can protect against aging and cancer. Acai berry products are also said to help people lose weight, fight heart disease and improve arthritis.

In short, evidence to support these health claims is limited. Studies of the antioxidant capacity of acai berries are conflicting. Though supported by a competing company (POM), one study found that pomegranate juice, red wine and blueberry juice have greater antioxidant potency than acai juice (Seeram et al, 2008). In addition, acai products are marketed as dietary supplements, so they escape FDA regulation. The acai berry may not necessarily be harmful, but its presumed power – to enhance sleep and guard against wrinkles, for example – has yet to be verified scientifically. If you’re looking to save a buck, stick to what’s proven to work. Get your daily dose of antioxidants by meeting the recommend 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day.

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Antioxidants: Free radical scavengers

Q: What’s an “antioxidant”?

A: Antioxidants are compounds that offset damage to the body’s cells. Antioxidants, including certain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, defend against injuries caused by free radicals. But what’s a free radical? Simply, free radicals are oxygen molecules floating around in your system that contain an unpaired electric charge. This single “electron” looks for a buddy to gain stability and so it destructively steals a second electron from substances like cell membranes and DNA.  Free radicals form naturally during the metabolism of food, but are also caused by cigarette smoke, air pollution and UV sun rays. While there are some benefits to free radicals, these highly reactive, unstable molecules are implicated in aging, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Fortunately, antioxidants can destroy free radicals, limit their formation and stimulate repair activity at the site of damage.

Antioxidant Food sources Recommended Daily Amount
Vitamin C Orange, grapefruit, mango, strawberries, broccoli 90 mg for men75 mg for women
Vitamin E Wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, peanut butter 15 mg
Beta-carotene (Vitamin A  precursor) Carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli None established
Selenium Brazil nuts, tuna, turkey, rice 55 µg
Lycopene Tomatoes, ketchup, watermelon None established
Lutein Dark, leafy greens (e.g. spinach) None established
Resveratrol Red grapes None established
Anthocyanin Blueberries, raspberries, plums, red grapes None established

There is no set daily recommendation for most antioxidants; however, eating more fruits and vegetables is the best way to boost your intake. Rely on whole foods, not supplements, since popping high dose capsules can have negative health effects. For example, beta-carotene supplements are associated with higher rates of lung cancer in men; however, smokers are recommended to increase vitamin C intake, due to smoke-induced oxidative damage. My take? Get your antioxidants from food sources, steer clear of mega-dose pills and stick to recommended daily amounts of vitamins & minerals.

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How many supplements do you take?

Q: I take a lot of vitamin and herbal supplements? Is that safe?

A: The sale of nutrient supplements is a billion dollar a year business. But whether you’re looking to ward off cancer, lose weight or make up for poor eating habits, you must be careful when taking supplements! In 1994, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration revised government regulation of dietary supplements, which include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, enzymes and many other substances. The new law determined that it is up to the manufacturer of the supplement to make sure that the product is safe, the label claims are substantiated by solid evidence and that the supplement’s content matches ingredients declared on the packaging. In short, supplements do not need approval from the FDA prior to marketing, nor does the FDA analyze the composition of these products. Manufacturers are required to investigate and alert the FDA of any reports of adverse health events associated with the product.

Supplements are indicated for certain groups of people: people with diagnosed nutrient deficiencies, pregnant women, infants, those who are lactose intolerant, perpetual dieters, those addicted to drugs or alcohol, strict vegetarians, and those suffering or recovering from illness, surgery or injury. While these may be valid reasons to be taking supplements, you should always notify your doctor of any over-the-counter products you’re consuming.

Taking supplements increases your risk of toxicities. High potency single nutrient supplements can cause accidental poisoning that can result in liver damage, shock and possible death. High doses can be very dangerous and labels can sometimes lure you with misleading or unproven claims. Certain nutrients, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, can build up in your system over time. In fact, intakes of vitamin A just twice the recommended amount, taken over a few years, are associated with osteoporosis, while daily supplements of beta-carotene may increase lung cancer risk in smokers.  Always adhere to government-set tolerable upper intake levels, unless your doctor suggests otherwise. (Click here for detailed information on daily recommendations and upper limits for vitamins and minerals, divided by age and gender.)

Supplements can also affect the absorption and metabolism of medicines you take and nutrients in the food you eat. For example, when taken in a pure form, zinc interferes with copper and calcium absorption and calcium hinders magnesium and iron absorption. In addition, the herbal product St. John’s Wort can severely limit the effectiveness of AIDS medications and is not recommended when simultaneously taking an antidepressant from the SSRI family. Clearly, taking multiple over-the-counter supplements increases your chance for harmful food-drug and drug-drug interactions.

My best advice is to try and get all your nutrients from food! Taking a multivitamin can help “cover your bases,” but any amount of certain vitamins or minerals consumed in excess of what your body needs will generally be excreted. While a banana and a tablet may both contain potassium, the fruit provides a balanced assortment of nutrients, fiber and phytochemicals (beneficial, active plant compounds) that can temper the effects of the mineral.

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