Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Do Vitamins Prevent Chronic Disease?

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The news about supplements just keeps getting worse and worse.  Many studies in the last few years report that a variety of individual supplements – including calcium, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and E have no effect on lowering the risk of having heart disease, a stroke, or cancer.  And now we can add multivitamins to that list.

A major study involved 161,808 post-menopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative that followed them for almost 8 years to assess risk factors for cancer, heart disease, and bone health.  The study included white, black, Latina, Asian, and Native Americans.

About 41.5% of the women took some kind of multivitamin/mineral supplement.  Most of them were white, college-educated, exercised, and had a lower body mass index.  Interestingly, most lived in the Western U.S.

The results showed that these women were no less likely to be diagnosed with cancers (breast, ovarian, lung, stomach, bladder, kidney, colorectal, endometrial).  In addition, multivitamins were not any more likely to prevent heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, or risk of death from any cause when compared to women who took no multivitamins.

Recently a new study of 180,000 people reported the same results as the previous study but only looked at heart disease and cancer.  These people were on average about 60 years old and followed for 11 years.

Neither study found that multivitamins caused any harm, unless they were taken as overdoses. However, they can be expensive.  In 2008, Consumer Reports stated that Americans spent almost $4.7 billion on multivitamins.

There are always exceptions, however.  Who may benefit from multivitamin/mineral supplements?

  • Newborns (vitamin K)
  • People living in areas without a fluoridated water supply.
  • Vegans (vitamin B12 and vitamin D)
  • Pregnant women (iron and folate)
  • People experiencing blood loss (iron)
  • Elderly persons on limited diets
  • People on restricted diets or those eliminating whole food groups
  • Adults with rheumatoid arthritis (EPA and DHA in fish oil)
  • People at risk for osteoporosis due to low calcium intake, and poor vitamin D status (determined by a blood test)
  • People with alcoholism
  • Elderly people at risk of vitamin B12, vitamin D and folate inadequacy

In my opinion, it’s better to get nutrients from whole foods – nutrients work synergistically in foods along with phytonutrients that can never be replaced by a pill.  Consult your health care provider about health problems before you start taking any supplements.  Taking dietary supplements is a personal choice.  Some people feel that taking a multivitamin is nutritional insurance.  The key is whether one feels their diet is adequate – if so, vitamins may be a waste of money.


One thought on “Do Vitamins Prevent Chronic Disease?

  1. Vitamins and minerals help maintain cellular efficiency by activating enzyme systems that are essential to cellular function. Phyto-nutrients which are found in various forms of plant life are so important that nutritionists recommend at least 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and suggest even more is better. Sadly, less than one in five Americans get even half of these amounts.,

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