Fruits and Vegetables Are Trying to Kill You


Illustration by John Hendrix

Antioxidant vitamins don’t stress us like plants do—and don’t have their beneficial effect.

John Hendrix | NAUTILUS

You probably try to exercise regularly and eat right. Perhaps you steer toward “superfoods,” fruits, nuts, and vegetables advertised as “antioxidant,” which combat the nasty effects of oxidation in our bodies. Maybe you take vitamins to protect against “free radicals,” destructive molecules that arise normally as our cells burn fuel for energy, but which may damage DNA and contribute to cancer, dementia, and the gradual meltdown we call aging.

Warding off the diseases of aging is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. But evidence has mounted to suggest that antioxidant vitamin supplements, long assumed to improve health, are ineffectual. Fruits and vegetables are indeed healthful but not necessarily because they shield you from oxidative stress. In fact, they may improve health for quite the opposite reason: They stress you.

That stress comes courtesy of trace amounts of naturally occurring pesticides and anti-grazing compounds. You already know these substances as the hot flavors in spices, the mouth-puckering tannins in wines, or the stink of Brussels sprouts. They are the antibacterials, antifungals, and grazing deterrents of the plant world. In the right amount, these slightly noxious substances, which help plants survive, may leave you stronger.

Eating food from plants that have struggled to survive toughens us up as well.

Parallel studies, meanwhile, have undercut decades-old assumptions about the dangers of free radicals. Rather than killing us, these volatile molecules, in the right amount, may improve our health. Our quest to neutralize them with antioxidant supplements may be doing more harm than good.

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