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What’s Missing from Multi-Vitamin Supplements?

January 2005

By Elizabeth Wagner, ND

Promoting a long, healthy life requires preventing diseases associated with poor lifestyle choices and normal aging. Collectively, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes account for approximately two thirds of all deaths in the US and about $700 billion in direct and indirect economic costs.1 

Scientists are discovering that vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and plant phytochemicals have powerful impacts on many of the biochemical pathways that go awry in disease processes such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Nutrients and phytochemicals work by many mechanisms to reduce inflammation, inhibit free radicals, prevent glycation reactions, help remove toxins from the body, increase natural antioxidant status, interfere with the proliferation of undesirable cell lines, optimize glucose metabolism, support healthy methylation reactions, and boost the circulatory system.

By arresting disease processes at the molecular and cellular levels, these therapeutic nutrients help arm us against the scourges of disease and aging, and thus build the foundation for a future of optimal health. In this article, we discuss some of the agents that have been identified by leading researchers as among the most promising in fighting illness and promoting health.


Chinese researchers investigated the effects of dietary intake of lycopene and other carotenoids on the prevention of prostate cancer in men.67 Information on food consumption, including fruits and vegetables, was gathered using an interview and questionnaire. The researchers found that prostate cancer risk declined with increasing consumption of lycopene, alpha carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Consumption of tomatoes, pumpkin, spinach, watermelon, and citrus fruits was also associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. The dose-response relationships were also significant in this study, suggesting that increasing one’s intake of lycopene and other carotenoid-rich vegetables and fruits may offer protection from prostate cancer.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have advised all adults to take a multi-vitamin supplement to help prevent suboptimal levels of nutrients that may contribute to the onset of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.2 For example, suboptimal levels of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer of the colon and breast.2 Deficient levels of calcium and vitamin D can contribute to osteoporosis and the loss of bone mass.3 While multi-vitamins can help to prevent certain illnesses, research indicates that abundant intake of fruits and vegetables can prevent some of the major diseases of aging.4 Studies at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition in Los Angeles, CA, have reported that higher intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced incidence of many common forms of cancer.4

The World Cancer Research Fund published an extensive review of the effects of vegetable and fruit consumption on cancer risk.5 After reviewing hundreds of studies, this not-for-profit group determined conclusively that vegetables and fruits protect against cancer. The panel noted that consumption of at least five servings a day of vegetables and fruits was associated with an approximately 50% reduced risk for cancer compared to the risk associated with consuming only one or two servings.5 The panel also noted that the cancer-preventive effects of fruits and vegetables were dose dependent, with increased intake conferring greater protection.5

Compelling evidence likewise suggests that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of mortality and morbidity in the US and worldwide. People who consume more fruits and vegetables often have a lower prevalence of important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, obesity, and type II diabetes.6 Regular and frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables has also been shown to lower the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, and hypertension.5,7

A large study conducted in Finland examined the effects of dietary fruit, berry, and vegetable intake on cardiovascular mortality and all-cause mortality in men.8 More than 2,000 Finnish men participated in the study, with a mean follow-up time of 12.8 years. Men with the highest consumption of fruits, berries, and vegetables had a 41% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 44% lower risk of all-cause death than men who consumed the least amount of fruits, berries, and vegetables.8 The study authors concluded, “…diets that are rich in plant-derived foods can promote longevity.”8


While intake of fruits and vegetables has been correlated with a decreased risk of numerous cancers, how such intake influences breast cancer risk is less clear.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina investigated how fruit and vegetable intake relates to breast cancer, using a large, population-based, case-controlled study.69 Intake of fruits, vegetables, and vitamin supplements was assessed in nearly 3,000 participants. Postmenopausal women who consumed the most vegetables experienced a 37% decreased risk of breast cancer compared to women with the lowest vegetable intake. Intake of carotenoids such as alpha carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and (especially) lycopene was also associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. By contrast, premenopausal women did not show a reduced breast cancer risk related to fruit and vegetable intake. The study authors concluded that fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Fruits and vegetables not only contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, but also provide a wealth of phytonutrients. These plant-based compounds likely are responsible for some of the protective effects of fruits and vegetables. Phytonutrients are versatile and powerful agents that help to modulate disease risk through a variety of mechanisms. For example, the glucosinolates in broccoli have been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, particularly of the lung and gastrointestinal tract.9 These compounds appear to offer protection by stimulating the liver’s Phase II enzymes, which are powerful detoxifiers of chemical carcinogens.10 By contrast, the polyphenols present in olive extract promote health through a different mechanism. In humans, olive polyphenols have been shown to increase the resistance of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) to oxidation.11 Oxidized LDL is a significant risk factor for the development of heart disease and atherosclerosis.

Pomegranate Promotes Heart Health

The pomegranate is a widely cultivated tropical fruit that is native to Asia. Valued throughout history as a symbol of health and fertility, pomegranates contain many seeds enclosed in juicy red pulp and covered in a tough red rind. Pomegranate appears to be one of the most powerful sources of antioxidants among dietary plants, demonstrating a number of actions that can help prevent disease and aging.12 Ellagic acid, a polyphenol compound found in pomegranate, has been associated with antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-atherogenic biological properties.13 Pomegranate polyphenols have been found to protect LDL against cell-mediated oxidation.14 In mice, polyphenol-rich pomegranate juice significantly inhibited the development of atherosclerotic lesions.14

In a study of pomegranate juice supplementation, atherosclerotic patients with carotid artery stenosis who consumed pomegranate juice for one year saw a significant reduction in their carotid intima-media thickness, a marker for coronary artery disease.15 They also experienced a significant reduction in their serum LDL basal oxidative state, an increase in their serum total antioxidant status, and a reduction in their systolic blood pressure.15 The study investigators suggested that pomegranate polyphenols may have been responsible for these effects.

Diabetics often experience elevated lipid levels and a correspondingly higher risk of heart disease. Pomegranate juice supplementation has been reported to improve lipid profiles in diabetics.16 Diabetic men and women with hyperlipidemia consumed 40 grams of concentrated pomegranate juice daily for eight weeks. At the study’s end, the participants demonstrated significant reductions in total cholesterol and LDL.16 This important finding suggests that pomegranate juice may help to lessen the increased risk of heart disease associated with diabetes.


High blood pressure often is a silent yet dangerous condition that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Diet has been reported to influence arterial blood pressure.

Researchers in Athens, Greece, investigated the effects of the Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, and olive oil—on blood pressure in adults.68 Over 20,000 subjects who had never been diagnosed with hypertension participated in the study. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was significantly associated with lower levels of systolic and diastolic blood pressure. By contrast, intake of cereals, meat and meat products, and ethanol was associated with higher levels of arterial blood pressure. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and olive oil has been demonstrated to promote healthy blood pressure levels.