$30 billion per year — that’s what Americans spend on dietary supplements in a valiant effort to improve their health and well-being. The intention is good, but do all those dollars and swallowed pills actually add up to any real, tangible, observable physical benefit? A new study suggests that in reality, those benefits might be a whole lot less than we think.
What’s the difference between actual medicine and a supplement? The answer as our society defines it actually lies in a piece of legislation passed in 1994 called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. In this Act, the law defines a supplement as a substance that “supports” your overall health, with no requirement of proof of any sort of demonstrable benefit. The idea of what actually “supports” our health is nebulous at best, and the law opened the door for basically anyone to market a product labeled as a supplement without having to go through the arduous process of getting approved via the FDA.
After 1994, the supplement industry exploded, and sales of a vast cornucopia of different shaped and sized pills led to a booming market. At the same time, researchers diligently studied the effects of supplements, and time and time again they were shown to be about as effective as a placebo in improving health.
You might assume that since we now have a robust internet at our fingertips with access to the summation of most human knowledge, that Americans might be a little more discerning about what they put in their body, right? Not so. In fact, a recent prominent medical journal found that supplement use between 1999-2012 actually remained fairly constant. What did change, however, is the type of supplements preferred by the public. This is not encouraging, however, as it suggests that our appetites for supplements remains the same, but the type we consume depends on the zeitgeist of the moment.
This isn’t to say that supplements are totally bogus or useless — for a small subsection of adults who cannot easily absorb certain vitamins and minerals, supplements can be a way to combat their deficiencies. However, the amount of people who actually have this medically valid reason for taking supplements is just a tiny fraction of the millions of people who consume them on a daily basis.
All of this being said, studies also show that supplement users are among the healthiest of the entire population. Yet, this is a prime teaching example of the difference between correlation and causation. Are these folks healthier because they take these supplements — or, is it simply that people who seek out supplements are more concerned and aware about their health, and are more likely to make other decisions that lead to a healthy lifestyle? We think it’s most likely the latter.