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Australian National Champion Powerlifter, in consultation with Trent Watson, sports dietitian and CEO at Ethos Health Pty Ltd.
The attitude of athletes to supplements and ‘superfoods’ is often the same as The X-Files catchphrase – “I want to believe”.
Take antioxidants (or rather, maybe you shouldn’t) – despite their initial promise, mounting evidence from large scientific studies is showing they don’t always live up to the hype when it comes to delivering health benefits. In fact, many studies show that taking antioxidant supplements could even do more harm than good. Trent Watson picks his way through the confusion.
TRENT WATSON is a sports dietitian and CEO at Ethos Health Pty Ltd. His doctoral studies investigated the role of antioxidants in exercise performance. He has presented on this topic to national health and sports organisations.
It’s pretty naïve to think that we can concentrate antioxidants into supplementation and provide a better mix than what nature has evolved over millions of years. My research found that fruit and veg – and food in general – is a far superior method of delivery of antioxidants to athletes. In fact, some of the supplement trials for my research, which had athletes exercising to exhaustion, showed that the antioxidants had adverse effects to the oxidative stress created in that athlete.
In the first trial, we took all their fruit and veg away and we found that their oxidative stress increased during their sub-maximal and exhaustive exercise – that was as we expected. In the next trial we gave that same group with an antioxidant supplement. We found that the antioxidant supplement group had an elevated level of oxidative stress compared to a group who were eating fruit and veg. This wasn’t the first trial to report such outcomes.
Antioxidants don’t work in isolation, they work in cascading metabolic pathways. For instance, Vitamin E acts against oxidants (free radicals), but in the process of doing this, [the Vitamin E] itself becomes an oxidant. So Vitamin E then has its oxidative effect reduced by, say, vitamin C, then the oxidative effect of the Vitamin C is reduced by glutathione, so there’s this cascading effect. This is how antioxidants work in combination. It seems and that whole foods – the stuff that we’ve evolved on – provides the best quantities and combinations of those antioxidants to control or mitigate against the oxidative stress induced by exercise.
The enzymatic antioxidants that are made in our body – called endogenous antioxidants – are upregulated by exercise. That is, our body increases its capacity for antioxidants without any of the antioxidants we consume, then the antioxidants we consume top up our internal antioxidant system.
There is a chance that exercise may overwhelm our intrinsic antioxidant system. That’s where an athlete benefits from having a diet high in antioxidants. But will an athlete get sufficient antioxidants from their diet? It seems as though the answer is yes. Athletes tend to consume more food than someone who’s sedentary because they have a higher energy demand. When they meet that high food intake, particularly if their diet is based around whole foods that are high in antioxidants, then they’ll meet their antioxidant requirements quite easily – enough to control against the oxidative stress induced by exercise.
This is not necessarily the case. Supplements provide benefits when they correct a nutritional deficiency, but if you’re having a nutritionally adequate diet and then you want to supplement over and above this, the evidence is growing to say that this could have a detrimental effect rather than a beneficial effect.
For instance, there was a landmark trial that demonstrated that beta-carotene supplementation actually increased the risk of lung cancer. There are other trails with Vitamin E – and these compounds are largely thought to be harmless – but when the supplementation of vitamin E got to a certain point, it started to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
So if you insist on using a supplement, choose the broadest spectrum supplement you can find and have it in a low dose so you have more chance of filling in gaps where there might be a nutritional deficiency.
The whole concept of superfoods really aggravates me. It’s more about marketing a food than any benefit it will provide. Red wine has antioxidants. Does that make it a superfood? The fact is that if you’re relying on red wine or dark chocolate to get your antioxidants, you’re going to be in serious trouble. Any one particular food has deficiencies in certain nutrients. You need balance – no single food is going to make someone’s diet "super".
Get as broad a spectrum of food as you can within the five core food groups and choose those that are produced with the least amount of human intervention. Choose wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit and veg, lean meats or meat alternatives, and dairy products. If the majority of your diet is based around these – and the full spectrum of these food groups – then you can almost guarantee that you’ll meet your dietary requirements.
Our immune system is based around oxidation – it’s a necessary part of living and recovery. If you treat yourself with too many antioxidants, does that then reduce our body’s immune response to correct injury or infection or dispose of damaged tissue? This is a hot topic of discussion when it comes to cancer. However, if there’s an insufficiency in any of the antioxidants, then we’re not going to be as healthy as we could be, so this compromises our immune response to any situation. But if it’s adequate, we should be able to optimise our response to inflammation or acute injury.
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