Vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and cancer risk

PillsWe analyse global research on how certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients affect the risk of developing cancer.


There is strong evidence that:

  • consuming high-dose beta-carotene supplements INCREASES the risk of lung cancer (in people who smoke or used to smoke tobacco)
  • consuming beta-carotene in foods or supplements is unlikely to have substantial effect on the risk of prostate cancer
  • consuming beta-carotene in supplements is unlikely to have substantial effect on the risk of skin cancer (non-melanoma)
  • consuming calcium supplements DECREASES the risk of colorectal cancer. However, overall, it’s best to eat a healthy diet rather than rely on dietary supplements to protect against cancer.
  • greater glycaemic load of the diet INCREASES the risk of endometrial cancer

For high-dose beta-carotene supplements and calcium supplements, conclusions can be drawn only for the doses that were investigated.

Cancer Prevention Recommendation

> It’s best to eat a healthy diet rather than rely on dietary supplements to protect against cancer

For preventing cancer in general, our recommendations include maintaining a healthy weightbeing physically active and eating a healthy diet.

Elements of the diet

Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are macronutrients that supply energy and are essential for tissue structure and function as well as physical and mental growth and development. These macronutrients can be subdivided into:

  • monosaccharides (such as glucose) and polysaccharides (such as starch) for carbohydrates
  • saturated, unsaturated and trans fatty acids for fats
  • and amino acids for proteins.

These constituent parts have different metabolic, physiological and biochemical effects, alone or in combination. Glycaemic index and glycaemic load are terms used to characterise foods and diets based on their effects on blood glucose levels.

A series of substances that don’t supply energy have been identified as also being vital to life, typically in small amounts: these are vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

As well as being contained in foods, these micronutrients are also available as supplements (usually in pill or powder form), and some are consumed in doses far in excess of what could be absorbed from food in any typical diet.

What are vitamins?

Vitamins are organic molecules – which may be fat or water soluble – that are needed for metabolism. However, most cannot be made in the body and so must be supplied in the diet. They each have specific functions in the body.

Vitamins A (retinol), D, E and K are fat soluble and can only be digested, absorbed and transported in conjunction with fats. They are found in liver, egg yolk and oily fish, and in the fat in milk and dairy products, animal fats and vegetable oils.

Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and in body fat stores. For this reason, they do not need to be consumed every day. Partly for the same reason, continuous high intakes, especially of retinol and vitamin D, can lead to excess accumulation and toxicity.

Vitamin C and the B vitamins are water soluble. The B group includes thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).

Excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins are generally not toxic because they are excreted in the urine rather than stored in the body. This also means that they generally have to be consumed more frequently than fat-soluble vitamins.

Foods of plant origin are important sources of water-soluble vitamins: for example, grains, vegetables, fruit, some roots and tubers and pulses. They can be destroyed by heat or exposure to the air, or lost by leaching during cooking, for instance when vegetables are boiled.

Mechanisms: the biology linking vitamins, minerals and other nutrients with cancer

> Read more about the cancer process

Emerging research

We fund research on how diet affects cancer risk through our regular grant programme. Read about the latest findings and ongoing projects here.

Diet and Cancer Report 2018

In 2018, we produced the Diet and Cancer Report, the third in our series of major reports looking at the many ways in which our diets, and how active we are, affect our cancer risk.

You can find out much more about vitamins, minerals, other nutrients and the risk of cancer by downloading a pdf of the relevant chapter in the 2018 report. Please note, however, that this webpage may have been updated since the report was published.