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Should I take beta carotene as a supplement?

Asked by Hazel Weidenbruch, Chilliwack, British Columbia

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Is it prudent to take beta carotene as a supplement?

Expert Bio Picture

Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid, a plant pigment that is a provitamin for vitamin A. During its digestion and metabolism, a percentage is converted to vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that is important for vision, growth and development, and healthy immune and reproductive function.

Beta carotene exists in the yellow, green and red pigmenting agents found in many fruits and vegetables. It is a very potent antioxidant, and numerous research studies have found an association between greater intake of beta carotene-containing fruits and vegetables and a reduced risk of disease including heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, age-related macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in older Americans) and even certain types of cancers.

The research on beta carotene supplements, however, particularly when it comes to heart disease prevention, has not shown the same benefits. In the case of lung cancer, studies suggest that beta carotene supplementation may actually increase your risk, even if you don't smoke.

The only disease where a beta carotene supplement may help is in the prevention or slowing of age-related macular degeneration and the associated vision loss. A large study released several years ago showed a significant slowing of disease progression with an antioxidant supplement containing vitamins C, E, beta carotene and zinc in Americans over the age of 55 who did not smoke. So unless you fall into this category, I would not recommend taking beta carotene supplements (smaller amounts in your daily multivitamin are fine; just don't take extra).

I would, however, highly recommend eating plenty of beta carotene-rich fruits and vegetables including broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, dark green leafy vegetables, apricots and cantaloupe for optimal health.

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