Americans spend over $30 billion a year on dietary supplements. Unfortunately, groundbreaking new studies released this year show that most of the nutritional supplements you take are no better than placebos.
The $30 billion nutritional supplement industry includes vitamins, minerals, herbal products, athletic supplements, and other health products.
Since these are nutritional supplements, they don’t fall into the category of “foods” or “drugs” – which means they’re largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is called “The Supplement Paradox: Negligible Benefits, Robust Consumption.”
That study, led by Pieter A. Cohen and a team of researchers is shedding light on how much of the supplement industry is more or less a scam.
Pieter traces the problem back to 1994, when the United States passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.
That Act allowed manufacturers to sell nutritional supplements to Americans without providing any proof to the FDA showing that they were safe or effective.
This Act allowed nutritional supplement makers to advertise their supplements as “supporting” various aspects of your health – as long as they didn’t advertise themselves as a preventive measure, cure, or treatment for a disease.
Since 1994, the nutritional supplement industry has blossomed into a $30 billion industry. 1994 “opened the floodgates”, explains The NY Times. Today, that’s led to an industry that’s filled with high-priced placebos and useless supplements.
52% of American adults took one or more supplements in 2012, even though scientific research has showed that many of these supplements are no different than a placebo.
What Did We Learn from the Study?
Some of the highlights from the latest study published in JAMA include:
-Not all supplements are useless for all people. The study described how “supplements are essential to treat vitamin and mineral deficiencies.”
Those with certain diseases and conditions can take the right combination of nutrients to help them treat certain medical conditions – like age-related macular degeneration.
-Nevertheless, the study claims that “for the majority of adults, supplements likely provide little, if any, benefit”
-Supplement usage has remained steady over the years between 1999 and 2012; however, the types of supplements American adults take has changed
-Multivitamin usage, for example, has declined to 31% from 37%, and the rates of vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium also decreased, showing that “sometimes people do act sensibly when faced with solid evidence”
-Nevertheless, the usage of other supplements has increased – even supplements that have no major benefits over a placebo. For example, glucosamine-chondroitin supplements have exploded with growth, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown no difference in arthritic pain relief between glucosamine-chondroitin supplements and a placebo.
Other Studies Have Reinforced the Uselessness of Supplements
It’s not just Dr. Cohen’s latest study that shows the useless of supplements. Other studies have led to similar conclusions.
For example, Regan L. Bailey of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 2007-10 that revealed the following about nutritional supplements:
- 45% of people took nutritional supplements to improve health conditions
- 33% took nutritional supplements to maintain their overall health
- 36% of women took calcium supplements for bone health
- 18% of men took supplements for heart health or to lower cholesterol
- Only 23% of respondents used supplements on the recommendation of a health care provider
Supplement Users Tend to Be Healthier, Skinnier, and Richer than Non-Supplement Users
Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting most nutritional supplements, there were some common trends among supplement users.
In most cases, supplement users were among the healthiest members of the population. They were more likely than non-users to report being in very good or excellent health, to use alcohol moderately, to avoid smoking cigarettes, to exercise frequently, and to have health insurance.
Other studies have reinforced the healthiness of supplement users, showing that they tend to live longer, weigh less, and have higher levels of education and socioeconomic status than non-users.
That difference in demographics is a mixed bag for researchers. It means that when trying to determine the health benefits of nutritional supplements, researchers need to control for all these characteristics to ensure respondents are on an even playing field.
In layman’s terms, that means you can’t compare all supplement users against all non-supplement users straight-up, because the supplement-users are more likely to be wealthier and have health insurance, which means they’re going to be healthier regardless of their supplement usage.
Group of American Physicians Does Not Recommend the Regular Use of Multivitamins as a Preventative Treatment
Another damning case against nutritional supplements came from the United States Preventive Services Task Force in 2013. That Task Force is an independent group of physicians who “base their advice on solid evidence.”
In a statement on their official website, the group opted not to recommend the regular use of multivitamins to prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer in people who were not nutrient deficient.
Most Americans are not nutrient deficient. Therefore, most Americans should not take nutritional supplements to prevent heart disease or cancer.
Why Are You Still Taking Nutritional Supplements?
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, respondents in the studies listed above say the same thing when asked why they take nutritional supplements: they believe their diets are deficient in certain areas.
Few people feel they get the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables, for example. Taking a supplement is an easy way to fill in any gaps in your diet.
In response, researchers claim that no pill can supply all the nutrients found in wholesome foods. Multivitamin supplements don’t contain the same fiber found in fruits and vegetables, for example.
You’re loading your body up in one nutrient category while depriving it of another.
Nutritional supplements also struggle with providing certain nutrients. If you wanted to take your daily recommended value of calcium, for example (1000mg per day), then the combination pill “would be too big for most people to swallow”, reports The NY Times.
Despite the scientific evidence, supplement users often distrust studies like the ones listed above. Many of these people have been taking supplements for years and enjoying health benefits – so why stop now?
Ultimately, if you believe a supplement is improving your health, does it really matter if it’s a placebo?