Vitamin supplements don’t help prevent heart disease or cancer, experts say

Vitamin supplements mostly useful for people who are pregnant, have deficiencies

New data is finding that taking vitamin supplements will not necessarily help prevent heart disease or cancer. Vitamin supplements are beneficial to those with vitamin deficiencies and those who are pregnant, but otherwise may not be as useful as you thought.

Vitamins and minerals are essential to maintaining normal health and a normal metabolism. However, the real question is whether you benefit from getting more vitamins and minerals than you would naturally from a well-rounded diet.

We’re talking about vitamin supplements, and the truth is that they may not be working in the ways you think they are.

A new evaluation from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force has found that vitamin supplements don’t necessarily offer much benefit when it comes to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“It’s not unreasonable that we thought we could take what we think are the healthiest components from fruits and vegetables, package them up into a pill, and hopefully they would work,” said Dr. Jenny Jia, an internal medicine specialist at Northwestern University. “In this case, we’re seeing that that’s just not the case.

Dr. Jia is the co-author of an editorial that accompanies the latest U.S. Preventative Services Task Force finding on vitamin supplements against cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“Unfortunately, vitamin supplements do not seem to be any sort of magic pill for preventing heart disease or cancer,” Jia said. “We saw that the effects of taking a multivitamin on these outcomes were pretty minimal-to-no benefit.”

Related: Study casts more doubt on use of high-dose vitamin D pills

Even more important, there is a downside to taking certain vitamins. For example, excessive amounts of beta-carotene -- a precursor to vitamin A -- can contribute to lung cancer.

Vitamin supplements can also offer false reassurances.

“Packaging vitamins into pills is not a shortcut, unfortunately, for eating a healthy diet, for exercising regularly, for maintaining a healthy body weight,” Dr. Jia said. “If supplements are, in any way, distracting people from focusing on really adopting these healthy lifestyle behaviors, then that is an issue.”

People buying vitamin supplements that they don’t necessarily need should also consider the cost. If you’re not really getting any benefit from the supplement, it is, quite literally, a waste of money, Dr. Jia says.

In their findings, the task force made an important exception when it comes to vitamin use: There is very strong research supporting the use of prenatal vitamins before and during pregnancy, specifically the use of folic acid, which can help prevent certain birth defects.

The situation is also different for people who do have a specific vitamin deficiency and rely on supplements to rectify it. If you believe you have a vitamin deficiency, meet with your doctor for an evaluation to determine if you need a vitamin supplement.

Related: Study shows connection between vitamin deficiency and dementia

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.