Vitamin supplements don’t appear to prevent cancer or heart disease

vitaminsVitamin supplements don’t appear to prevent cancer or heart disease

There is no clear evidence that taking vitamin and mineral supplements reduces the risk of cancer or heart disease, according to a draft recommendation statement from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

While using supplements generally does not cause harm, they should not be viewed as a way to reduce disease risk for the average person.

“In general, the Task Force found that there is not enough evidence to determine whether you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer by taking single or paired nutrients or a multivitamin,” said Michael LeFevre, MD, co-chair of the task force. “However, there were two major exceptions: beta-carotene and vitamin E, both of which clearly do not help prevent these diseases.”

About the recommendation

To form the recommendation, investigators reviewed earlier studies, analyses and reviews on the use of vitamins, minerals and multivitamins.

After compiling the data, the Task Force noted that:

  • There is no clear evidence of benefits from taking most vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • There is enough evidence to state that there is no benefit to supplementing with vitamin E or beta-carotene (beta-carotene can be harmful, increasing the risk of lung cancer in people who are already at increased risk for the disease).
  • Two studies showed a small decrease in cancer risk for men taking multivitamins. However, the benefits appeared to be marginal and there was no apparent benefit for women, which makes it hard to attribute any overall benefit to supplementation.
  • There is no reason to avoid taking supplements (aside from those known to cause harm). However, taking vitamins does not replace the need for eating a nutrient-rich diet.

The Task Force noted that these recommendations do not apply to special groups who might benefit from specific supplementation, such as children, seniors or women who are pregnant.

The take-home message
While some people may benefit from taking supplements, that is a decision best made with a doctor’s advice.To avoid harmful side effects, any supplement should be taken only in recommended doses.“Many people take dietary supplements to support their general health and wellness,” said Wanda Nicholson, MD, a member of the Task Force. However, without clear evidence about the effect of most vitamins and multivitamins on heart disease and cancer risk, people wanting to avoid those diseases might be best advised to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in nutrients, she added.

Both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society offer similar recommendations about choosing healthy foods over supplements to help prevent disease.

The Task Force is taking comments on the draft recommendation until Dec. 9. Comments can be submitted at

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