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Can vitamins help protect your heart?

Best sources of antioxidant vitamins
Best sources of antioxidant vitamins

Which foods are rich in antioxidant vitamins? Here’s a guide:

  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils (such as peanut, soy and corn), whole-grain cereals and bread, wheat germ, dried beans, green leafy vegetables
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits, strawberries, melons, papayas, kiwi, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and other leafy greens, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, green peppers, raw cabbage
  • Beta-carotene: deep yellow vegetables (such as pumpkin, winter squash, carrots and yams), leafy greens (such as spinach), broccoli, cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes

As children we were told by parents to eat our vegetables because they were full of vitamins. In recent years we were given the same advice by scientific researchers who speculated that certain vitamins—the antioxidant vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A)—might help prevent heart disease.

Along with aging comes a process called oxidation that damages cells in every part of the body. (Oxidation, by the way, is the same process that rusts metal and turns a cut apple brown). Oxidized cholesterol and other lipids (fats) in the blood promote atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty plaque in the walls of arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes.

Some studies have shown that vitamin E and beta-carotene can decrease a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke by blocking the oxidation process. Two studies—one following women and the other following men—were conducted at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health. Both studies found that those who took vitamin E had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (50 percent lower for women and 26 percent lower for men).

In another study, women who regularly ate foods containing antioxidant vitamins had a 54 percent lower risk of stroke compared to women who ate such foods infrequently. And in a similar study of men, those who increased their consumption of foods containing antioxidant vitamins by three servings every day decreased their risk of stroke by 20 percent.

Too much of a good thing?

Before you rush out to buy an antioxidant vitamin supplement, note that most experts are urging consumers to be cautious. Many supplements contain a higher dose of vitamins and minerals than the body needs, and vitamins can pose serious health risks taken in very large doses. Another concern is that people will view antioxidant supplements as a “quick fix” for coronary artery disease and be less likely to eliminate lifestyle risks, such as a high-fat diet or cigarette smoking.

Instead of taking supplements, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Adding antioxidant-rich foods to your diet is a safe and effective way to increase your intake of these healthful nutrients.

Too much of a good thing?