The essence of a healthy diet is a bit of a mystery. Everyone knows that a diet full of plant foods—fruits, vegetables, and nuts—is good for you, as it can lower the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments. But scientists, being scientists, want to know the exact reason, and they have long eyed antioxidants. These chemicals, found in high amounts in some plants, quench harmful molecules that can run amok in cells, fatally damaging DNA and the cellular machinery.
As the hypothesis that antioxidants offer health benefits took root in the minds of consumers, however, it shriveled in labs. Mounds of studies, conducted over decades, have found no conclusive link between antioxidants and lower disease risks. And, this month, two studies add to evidence that antioxidants may actually increase the spread and severity of some cancers.
What I’m missing in this story is whether free radicals can actually promote the growth of cancer cells as healthy cells are damaged. Yes, I get that the downside is that antioxidants can protect growing cancer cells, but what about before cancer cells develop? In other words, can the antioxidant protection against free radicals help prevent the formation of cancer cells in the first place? Or is there no link?
I’d like to point out another medical truism: if men were mice, we’d have cured cancer a long time ago.