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Vitamins are essential for our health. In fact, the word vitamin contains the Latin word for life: vita.

While we get vitamins and minerals through the food we eat, drugstores and health food stores have aisles dedicated to the sales of supplements. With health magazines, television shows and even our friends touting their benefits, it’s hard not to be convinced that we need to take some extra vitamins to be healthy, just in case we’re not getting enough.

But do we have definite evidence that taking vitamin supplements help prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer?

The short answer is no.

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The United States Preventive Services Taskforce, an independent panel that provides guidelines on preventive care, recently updated their recommendations regarding the use of supplemental vitamins and minerals in the prevention of cardiovascular events and cancer. It found that results of studies done so far are inconclusive and that there is not enough evidence of benefit to recommend supplemental vitamins for these reasons. Their findings were published in the Feb. 25 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine

The task force also recommended against the use of two specific supplements for the prevention of heart disease or cancer: vitamin E and beta-carotene. Results of studies have clearly shown no benefit to using vitamin E for prevention. Beta-carotene was found to increase the risk of lung cancer in those already at higher risk (smokers, for example) and should be avoided in this population.

Americans collectively spend a lot of money on supplements: $28.1 billion in 2010. Other products, such as vitamin-infused drinks, have also been very popular.

Though most products that have additional vitamins do not seem to do much harm, just last month, Uncle Bens Flavor Infused Rice — which had vitamin B3 (niacin) added to it — was recalled after several people developed nausea, headaches, rash and flushing from eating it. This was a good reminder that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and that supplements do have potential side effects.

This is not to say that there aren’t groups who need additional vitamins. Women who are or could get pregnant should take prenatal vitamins to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus. People who have had gastric bypass surgery need to take vitamins, as do some people with celiac disease. If you are not sure whether you need to take supplements, ask your primary care physician.

If you do need vitamins, buyer beware; the concentration of active ingredient can vary widely from one manufacturer to another. Check the label. If it says it is “U.S.P. verified,” it has been approved by the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit organization that assures the quality of dietary supplements and other products. Less than one percent of supplements have this designation.

The bottom line: It turns out our parents were right when they told us to eat our vegetables. Make sure to eat a variety of them because the best source of nutrition for most of us doesn’t come in a bottle. It comes from good, healthful food.

Linda Pourmassina, M.D., is an internal-medicine physician who practices at The Polyclinic in Seattle. She has a blog at and can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter (@LindaP_MD).

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