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Vitamin supplements: Do they prevent cancer?

Focused on Health - February 2013

by Carlandrea Clark

Aisles in grocery stores and pharmacies are stacked with vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants that you take in pill, capsule, tablet or liquid form. Many of us buy these supplements and take them regularly, hoping to lower our chances of getting cancer and other diseases.

supplements vitaminsBut do supplements really work wonders? Should you take them to help prevent cancer?

Our experts say beware.

“Don’t be fooled by the label on the bottle,” says Sally Scroggs, health education manager at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. “Researchers are still unsure about whether or not supplements actually prevent cancer.”

Results from several large studies have found that vitamins E, C and Beta-carotene do not prevent cancer, including prostate cancer. In fact, some studies have suggested that supplements may actually increase cancer risk by tilting the balance of nutrients in the body. 

supplements cancer“If you eat lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, you should get the nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals, your body needs to lower your chances of getting diseases like cancer,” Scroggs says. “Taking a pill can’t replace a healthy diet.”

Supplements may benefit some

More research is needed to truly understand the relationship between supplements and cancer risk.

Still, there are some situations when taking a supplement might do your body good. This is especially true for men and women who are not getting enough nutrients because of food allergies, genetics or chronic illnesses.

Here are a few examples of when taking a supplement might be right for you:

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • People at risk for osteoporosis
  • People at risk for B-12 deficiency
  • People age 50 or older
  • Vegans who consume no animal foods
  • People at risk for vitamin D deficiency

READ ALSO: The skin – ny on vitamin D

Get professional advice

Thinking about taking supplements?  Speak with your doctor or a registered dietician first. He or she can decide which pills you really need and what dose you should take. Keep in mind there’s no vitamin or supplement that’s good for everyone.

A registered dietician also can tell you what to look for on supplement labels. This is important because some supplement labels can be confusing or misleading.

“Remember, supplements are just that — supplements,” Scroggs says. “Even if your doctor recommends them, your top priority should be getting the nutrients you need from the food you eat.” 

Do your research and talk to your doctor before you add supplements to your diet.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center