Harvard Women's Health Watch

To your health: Multivitamin/mineral supplements: Needed insurance?

To your health

Multivitamin/mineral supplements: Needed insurance?

Many Americans take a daily multivitamin/mineral pill in the hope of warding off cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. But a government panel of experts says there isn't enough evidence to say whether it helps. The panel was convened in May 2006 by the National Institutes of Health to weigh the evidence on multivitamin/mineral supplements and disease. The group reported that only a handful of individual vitamins and minerals could be recommended for disease prevention (see table). It also didn't find enough evidence to recommend for or against taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement.

Does that mean we should toss out our one-a-days? Probably not. Multivitamin/mineral supplements can help fill occasional gaps in our dietary intake and meet special requirements, such as folic acid for pregnant women and vitamin B12 for older adults, who may have trouble absorbing it from food.

Vitamins and minerals the National Institutes of Health recommends for disease prevention

Vitamin/mineral

Benefits

Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, zinc combination

May help reduce the progression of intermediate-stage age-related macular degeneration.*

Calcium and vitamin D

Helps protect bone health in postmenopausal women.

Folic acid (400 mcg/day)+

Prevents neural tube defects in women of childbearing age.

*For use only by nonsmoking adults. Smokers should avoid taking beta carotene because it increases their risk for lung cancer.

+Most multivitamin/mineral supplements contain this amount.

Source: Adapted from Annals of Internal Medicine (Sept. 5, 2006), Vol. 145, No. 5, pp. 366–67.

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