Harvard Health Letter

The benefits of vitamin pills and chocolate

Ask the doctor

vitamin pills and chocolate
Image: serggod/ Thinkstock

Q. Do vitamin pills reduce a person's risk of heart disease and cancer, or not? I hear different things. And recently, I hear people saying chocolate is heart-healthy. Is that too good to be true?

A. I'm a committed chocoholic. Once I was in an ice cream store and saw a flavor called "Triple Chocolate Death," and I said to myself: "What a way to go!" Recently, a colleague told me about a flavor called "Chocolate Therapy," which shows how attitudes are changing.

Regarding vitamins, many studies find that people who eat vitamin-rich foods have lower levels of heart disease and cancer. For vitamin pills, however, the evidence is much less clear. There's reason to think that multivitamin pills containing relatively high doses of B vitamins, or B vitamin pills alone, might reduce your risk of heart disease. Harvard's large Nurses' Health Study found that people who eat a lot of foods rich in folic acid have lower blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart disease. Folic acid (a B vitamin) and vitamin B12 pills also lower blood levels of a natural molecule called homocysteine. Very high blood levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease. Yet, B vitamin pills don't lower the risk of heart disease in people with normal or somewhat high homocysteine levels. And no large studies have tested whether B vitamins are valuable in those unusual people with very high levels.

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