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Taking Vitamins to Prevent Cancer or Heart Disease
In my practice we ask our patients to bring all of the medications they are taking, including vitamins and herbs or supplements, to every office visit. This is so that if a patient is seeing more than one doctor - maybe a cardiologist in addition to visiting me, an internist - we can make sure that none of the medications they are taking will interact with each other in negative ways.

Eat your antioxidants
People often rely on vitamin supplements to make up for their poor diets. This is especially true now that we know that some vitamins, such as antioxidants (vitamins E, C, or beta-carotene) or B vitamins, have been shown in the lab to help prevent such conditions as cancer, heart disease, and high cholesterol. 

Are vitamins and supplements necessary to eat healthy?
There are a lot of vitamins sold today. They come in all forms - pills, capsules, packets of pills and supplement drinks. We now have more and more good research that says they are pretty much worthless. We know that vitamins are good for you, but the research is now clear that getting your vitamins from food and not supplements is better for you.


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Best way to get your vitamins?
Eat them.

Certainly there are times when it's a good idea to take extra vitamins or other supplements, but these are limited to people in pretty specific populations: for example, during pregnancy, if you are a woman of childbearing age, or if you are following a vegan diet. However, in our well-fed Western culture it's pretty rare to really need to take vitamins.

One of the drawbacks of the last few decade's worth of nutrition research is that with all that we've learned about the importance of specific vitamins, people have become focused on specific nutrients rather than an overall healthy diet. And that's likely the reason that more and more people are taking vitamin supplements, believing that they can enhance their health or even help prevent chronic diseases - heart disease being one example.

Unfortunately, it appears that not only is taking vitamins likely to be unnecessary, it may actually be harmful.

An international team of researchers made use of data collected during the Iowa Women's Health Study, which included diet, health and vitamin intake records of nearly 20,000 postmenopausal women (Arch Int Med 2011;171(18):1625-1633). The study was originally designed to look at the associations between diet and lifestyle factors and the incidence of cancer and lasted over 20 years.

In addition to which vitamins or minerals the participant reported taking, the researchers took into account such variables as age, Body Mass Index, education, whether the participant smoked, whether they had diabetes or high blood pressure, their average caloric intake and even the amount of saturated fat in their diet. For those women who died during the study, the researchers acquired information regarding cause of death and assigned the deaths to one of three types: cardiovascular disease, cancer, or all other causes (not including injury, accident or suicide).

After comparing the supplements taken by those women who died of those three causes with those women who did not die, the researchers found that, generally speaking, taking vitamin supplements had no effect on a woman's risk of death. That said, some supplements stood out: for example, taking calcium appeared to be related to a reduced risk of death, while taking iron, especially as the women got older, seemed to increase the risk of death.

What this means for you

Remember that this study does not establish a cause and effect relationship between taking vitamins and death - but since it takes into account so many variables, the association between certain supplements and risk of death might be a cause for some concern. The take-home message for you is that unless your doctor tells you to take a specific vitamin, chances are you don't need them. Spend your money on eating great food instead.

First posted: October 12, 2011