Can we prevent heart disease and cancer by taking vitamins and minerals?

Cypress Hills, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Cypress Hills, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

On June 21 2022, US Preventive Services Task Force released updated evidence report and systemic review of vitamin and mineral supplements use for the primary prevention of heart disease and cancer.

Cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death and combined account for approximately half of all deaths in Canada and US annually.

Canadians spend more than $1.4 billion a year on vitamins and supplements. People in the U.S. spent nearly $50 billion on dietary supplements in 2021. Can this money be put to better use? Today, we will review what the Task Force said.

The Task Force reviewed 84 studies and found vitamins and supplements offer little to no benefit in preventing cancer or heart disease. For healthy individuals there is no need to spend precious dollars on consuming vitamins and minerals supplements.

Recommendations for healthy individuals is that instead of taking vitamins or supplements, eating a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly are the best ways to lower one’s risk of cancer or heart disease. A healthy diet is still the first line of defense against chronic disease.

In the past it has been common for health care professionals to recommend vitamin and mineral supplements to their patients for a variety of reasons such as overall health, bone health, musculoskeletal pain, viral infections and immune health.

Independent panel of experts at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force have concluded that it had insufficient evidence to either recommend or discourage the use of multivitamins or supplements to prevent health outcomes.

The American Heart Association recommends that healthy persons receive adequate nutrients by eating a variety of foods in moderation, rather than by taking supplements.  The US Department of Health and Human Services 2020-2025 dietary guidelines suggest that nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods and beverages.

Task Force says unnecessary use of vitamins and minerals can cause harm. For example – lung cancer incidence was reported with the use of beta carotene by persons who smoke tobacco or have occupational exposure to asbestos.

The review examined the impacts of popular supplements like beta carotene, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, selenium and zinc, as well as multivitamins and vitamins A, B, C, D and E. More large-scale studies have come out since 2014, and there is no convincing proof that vitamins and supplements in general are helping with prevention of heart disease and cancer.

There are exceptions to this advice. In the right circumstances, supplements have health benefits. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies cause myriad illnesses. For individuals who are or may soon become pregnant, folic acid is recommended to prevent neural tube defects and iron is recommended to prevent preterm birth and low birth weight, as well as improve fetal brain development, says the Task Force. Supplements should be used for older adults who struggle to absorb nutrients through food.

The new review found strong evidence that vitamin E in particular did not prevent cancer or heart disease, while beta carotene was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and death from heart disease. Consequently, the Task Force advised against taking either supplement to prevent heart disease or cancer, the same recommendation it gave in 2014.

Conclusions

  1. The current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of the use of vitamins for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer.
  2. The Task Force specifically recommends against the use of beta carotene supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer because of a possible increased risk of mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and lung cancer.
  3. The Task Force also specifically recommends against the use of vitamin E supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer because it probably has no net benefit in reducing mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.

Remember, healthy diet is still the first line of defense against bad health.

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