Dietary Supplements do Not Play a Significant Role in Heart Disease and Cancer Prevention

We may be putting too much stock into that cocktail of dietary supplements and its perceived benefits, according to new research.
Mario L. Major

Although it is fairly easy for us to welcome research that reveals startling new discoveries or explains the potential benefits of new materials or technologies, there is the category of less popular studies which essentially tell us that some practice we've been doing or product we've been using is not correct or doesn't have the perceived benefits.

These "think again studies" include recent information on the risks of e-cigarettes, or the landmark study which makes it clear that alcohol consumption, in any form, is not a safe option healthwise. Now, researchers have published a study which suggests that some of the most commonly used dietary supplements may not pack the health benefits we believe.

Adding to the validity of the study is that it is solidly backed by evidence compiled from a number of previous studies looking at the link between omega-3 fatty acids, fish oils, and cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Tracking a growing phenomenon

This current study came, in part, in response to a earlier study from two years before on the trend of dietary supplements which found that vitamin D supplements increased by a factor of four, while for fish oil supplements it was a staggering factor of ten, which indicates that the public is more or less sold. 

To look evaluate the benefits, the researchers devised a trial which was double-blind, placebo-controlled, and completely randomized. Named the Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial (VITAL), it revealed to the scientists that "the use of n−3 fatty acids is not effective in preventing the combined endpoint of myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes in unselected patients."

Overextending the Reach of Supplements

In looking at the question of whether we should be using fish oil supplements in our diet,  Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor of Harvard Health Publishing puts it plainly: "The answer is [fish oil is] more friend than foe if the fish oil comes from food sources rather than supplements. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood come entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish.


But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA. The same holds true of other foods. Taking even a handful of supplements is no substitute for wealth of nutrients you get from eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains."

Viewed in this light, the research, in addition to the views put forth by many in the medical community, suggests that our only mistake is relying too much on supplements to compensate for diets lacking in the daily nutrients we require. 

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "VITAL Signs for Dietary Supplementation to Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease", which was published November 10th in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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