- Experts say that many vitamin and mineral supplements don’t offer any benefits when it comes to protecting against cancer or cardiovascular disease.
- Beta carotene supplements may actually increase lung cancer risk for certain individuals.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements can interact with certain medications and you should speak with a trusted healthcare provider before starting a supplement routine.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are unlikely to protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, or death, according to updated guidelines by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
Although dietary supplement use is common among U.S. adults, some experts argue that vitamins and supplements are a “waste of money.”
John Wong, MD, a professor of medicine at Tufts University and a member of the USPSTF, told Verywell that it is reasonable to assume that certain anti-inflammatory supplements could reduce the risk of developing cancer or cardiovascular disease, but there is no evidence to support the association.
“It’s really fundamentally a call for more research,” Wong said.
The USPSTF did issue a “D” grade for some supplements, including vitamin E and beta carotene, to discourage people from using them.
Vitamin E supplements offer no protective benefits against cancer or cardiovascular disease, Wong explained. Beta carotene supplements, which convert into vitamin A in the body, can even increase the risk of lung cancer in individuals who already have certain risk factors, like smoking or occupational exposure to asbestos.
Wong emphasized that these recommendations were specifically made for non-pregnant adults. They don’t apply to children, adults who are chronically ill, people who have nutritional deficiencies, or in circumstances where diseases or medications interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
“A lot of this depends on your individual circumstances,” he said.
Misconceptions About Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
The USPSTF had made the same recommendation in 2014, which showed no evidence or support for taking multivitamins or mineral supplements. But Americans still spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements.
“People like something tangible when it comes to health. It’s often easier to take a pill than invest in behavior, diet, and lifestyle change,” Melissa Majumdar, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and bariatric coordinator with Emory University Hospital Midtown, told Verywell in an email.
Before taking a supplement, experts say to consider misleading health claims on the labels. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve dietary supplements for safety or efficacy of supplements, nor approve labeling before a supplement goes on sale. Some supplement labels promote unproven claims that the product has “no side effects” or is “better than” a prescription drug.
Without evidence to support the efficacy of supplements, many nutrition and public health experts say it’s best to focus on getting nutrients from your diet instead.
It is easier for your body to use vitamins and minerals that come from a balanced diet rather than from supplements, according to Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, a clinical professor at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Laing told Verywell that the compounds in fruits and vegetables work “synergistically” to promote health and these “cannot be replicated in a dietary supplement.”
What About Folic Acid or Vitamin D?
Despite insufficient evidence to support the use of supplements to reduce cardiovascular disease and cancer risk, the USPSTF does recommend some supplements. For example, folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, got an “A” rating for use in pregnant adults as it helps prevent certain birth defects.
“[They] should be taking folic acid 0.4 to 0.8 milligrams on a daily basis,” Wong said.
Although some foods are fortified with folic acid, it’s still difficult to get enough of this vitamin through diet alone.
Vitamin D is another nutrient that can be hard to fulfill through diet entirely. Your body generates vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, but some people may struggle to absorb enough of the vitamin through sun exposure and foods like fatty fish and beef liver.
“Vitamin D insufficiency is more common among individuals with darker skin, those living in Northern latitudes, and those who avoid sun exposure,” Laing said.
However, excess Vitamin D can cause health issues, such as kidney stones, confusion, and vomiting. You can ask your healthcare provider for a blood screening if you’re unsure whether you need to take vitamin D supplements.
Vitamin D is not the only supplement that can cause harm in high doses. St. John’s wort, an herb that has been used to treat depression and poor sleep, can interact with birth control and other medications, while vitamin C might make some cancer treatments less effective.
Even when supplements don’t cause harm, getting too much of them may be unnecessary as they go unused by the body.
“More is not always better when it comes to the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements,” Laing said.
What This Means For You
Certain supplements can interact with medications, making these less effective. While supplements are available over-the-counter, you should consider speaking with a trusted healthcare provider before starting any supplement regime.