Supplements No Substitute for Healthy Diet

Written by yvonnethornton on March 13th, 2014

Bad news for vitamin-lovers: it appears they are not helping you prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD). A study carried out by the American Heart Association concluded that “the scientific data [does] not justify the use of antioxidant vitamin supplements for CVD risk reduction,” and that there is no consistent evidence which suggests that consuming micronutrients in higher amounts than those found in a balanced, healthy diet is beneficial in regards to CVD risk reduction.

What’s more, your vitamin supplements aren’t helping you prevent cancer, either, as outlined here by the American Cancer Society. Other organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have reported similar findings. 

In most cases, vitamin supplements are not harmful, and the results of the latest research do not mean that supplements offer no benefits whatsoever. But if you are taking them to lower your risk of CVD or cancer, the newest evidence suggests that you are wasting your money.

There is currently no official recommendation on either taking or avoiding vitamin supplements for healthy individuals, with a couple of exceptions. One such exception involves beta carotene, which studies such as this one show can actually increase a smoker’s risk of lung cancer when taken in the high doses found in many supplements. This is in direct opposition to the previously popular belief that high doses of beta carotene were beneficial in cancer prevention.

What has been shown to have a beneficial effect on CVD and cancer risk is nutrition – a diet consisting of mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats, particularly seafood. A diet like this offers plenty of fiber, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients offer a number of health benefits, including weight control, blood pressure control, and heart disease and cancer prevention. What the new studies show is that if you are hoping that your vitamin supplements allow you a bit more leeway in your diet, you’re shortchanging yourself.

What about Prenatal Vitamins?

It’s important to note that these studies do not mean that women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should toss all of their supplements. Folic acid should be taken to help prevent neural tube defects; the prenatal multivitamins prescribed by a woman’s doctor should be taken as directed. Also make sure your doctor knows about any vitamin supplements you are taking, because some can be harmful. High levels of vitamin A, for example, may be linked to birth defects.

And again, just because you are taking a prenatal vitamin – which you should if you are pregnant – does not mean your diet is not important. Healthy, natural foods contain many compounds not found in supplements, so a combination of prenatal vitamins and a healthy diet will help protect your baby as he or she develops.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


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