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FAQ: Vitamins to Prevent Cancer, Heart Disease?

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"We are moderately certain they are not of benefit," LeFevre says.

“For people at high risk of lung cancer, such as smokers, there is actually a higher risk of lung cancer with using beta-carotene. Our recommendations on vitamin E and beta-carotene apply to everyone, however.”

Does the task force recommend any vitamins or supplements to prevent cancer and heart disease?

“The task force does not. The task force says the science is insufficient to make a recommendation one way or the other. However, we are not recommending against supplements. It's true we didn't find benefit. It's also true we didn’t find enough evidence to be certain about benefit or harm, with the two exceptions.

“My personal take, in my day job as a family physician, is that nutrition is important in both cancer and heart disease prevention. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy foods, and seafood has been associated with a decrease in cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

The disease-fighting elements in a good diet are:

  • Fiber, which aids weight control and lowers heart and cancer risks
  • Antioxidants, which fight disease-causing cell damage
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which lower blood pressure among other benefits

Talk with your doctor about vitamin use, LeFevre says. “In my practice, for example, before recommending a supplement I would want to see evidence that benefits outweigh harms."

What about task force recommendations on vitamins and supplements for other purposes?

“We have a positive recommendation for vitamin D in frail elderly patients at risk for falling. We have a negative recommendation for calcium and vitamin D in postmenopausal women at the usual dose -- 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 800 milligams of vitamin D, [because it] does not reduce fracture risk -- the outcome we looked at."

Will you revisit the issue of vitamins for heart disease and cancer prevention?

“We typically revisit an issue every 5 years. We sometimes will update a recommendation earlier if we become aware of additional studies.”

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