Antioxidants should, by all accounts, be really good for you. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that generates free radicals (no, not hippies from the 1960s), which are highly reactive substances that can damage or even kill a cell. Antioxidants block oxidation, and, theoretically, preserve the health of cells throughout the body. For example, we know that when it is oxidized, LDL cholesterol–aka “bad” cholesterol–is much more capable of initiating the process that can lead to the blockage of arteries, including the coronary arteries of the heart. It would make sense, then, that anything that inhibits this process should prevent heart attacks.
But until now, this has been very hard to prove. In fact, previous studies examining antioxidant supplements–usually containing one to several antioxidants–have found no effect on the incidence of coronary disease. So investigators theorized that perhaps the total antioxidant capacity present in the food we eat could make a real difference. Total antioxidant capacity would measure the activity of the thousands of antioxidants present in food and also take into account the way they interact with each other (we call this synergy, a process in which the activities of two compounds in combination exceeds the sum of their individual activities).
New Study Shows Dietary Antioxidants May Make a Difference
A group of researchers in Sweden did precisely this. They measured the total antioxidant capacity in the diets of over 32,000 women for nearly 10 years by means of a food diary questionnaire, and then examined the results. They discovered that women who ate the most foods containing antioxidants (about 7 servings per day) had a 20% lower incidence of heart attacks than the women who ate the least (2.4 servings per day). This effect is modest—amounting to about 1 less heart attack for every 100 women over a 10 year period—but very real, nonetheless.
Antioxidants considered in the analysis included single servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, coffee, tea, and (thumbs-up!) chocolate. Most of the antioxidants consumed in this study were in the form of fruits and vegetables.
What Else You Can Do to Decrease Your Risk of Heart Attack
An earlier study showed that women consuming a high-antioxidant diet have a lower incidence of stroke, and now we can add heart disease to the list. Remember, however, that the effect is small, and that although the study did find an association between an increase in dietary antioxidants and a decreased risk in heart attack, it didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s very important to continue to do the big things that we know can ward off heart disease: Don’t smoke, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, manage stress, and see your primary care provider to ensure your blood pressure and cholesterol are under control.