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Dietary Supplements Don't Make You Invulnerable


Wouldn’t it be great if all you had to do to stay healthy was to take a dietary supplement every day, and then you could eat whatever you wanted? Results of a new study suggest people who take supplements may have this mindset and view themselves as invulnerable to health problems.

Taking supplements doesn’t guarantee good health

A research team from several Taiwanese universities explored the relationship between frequent use of dietary supplements and behaviors related to health after one of the team watched a colleague select unhealthy food rather than organic fare just because the colleague had taken a multivitamin that day.

According to the team, about half the population frequently takes dietary supplements. In the United States, for example, a new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics’ Data Brief found that more than 50 percent of Americans take one or more supplements each day.

A similar finding was reported in the Journal of Nutrition, which noted that 49 percent of the US population takes supplements, with the highest use (70%) among adults age 71 years and older. The most commonly used supplement among all ages was multivitamin-multimineral dietary supplements.

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In the Taiwanese study, the investigators conducted two experiments. In one, the volunteers were told to take a multivitamin while those in a control group were assigned a placebo. However, individuals in both groups were actually given a placebo.

Based on results from the experiments and survey, the authors found that participants who thought they were taking dietary supplements acted as though they were invulnerable to negative health effects. For example, in one experiment, volunteers who believed they were taking supplements preferred a buffet over an organic meal.

In the second experiment, individuals who were led to believe they were taking supplements walked less to improve their health than did participants in the control group. According to Wen-Bin Chiou, of National Sun Yat-Sen University, who conducted the study along with two colleagues, “People who rely on dietary supplement use for health protection may pay a hidden price, the curse of licensed self-indulgence.”

It is commonly held among health professionals that the best way for people to get the nutrition they need for overall health is through wholesome foods and not from supplements. Yet there is also a commonly held belief that taking a pill can make things better, including health.

The results of this study indicate that people who take dietary supplements may believe they are invulnerable to the consequences of behaviors that contribute to poor health, such as eating fast food or choosing not to exercise.

Association for Psychological Science
Bailey RL et al. Journal of Nutrition 2011 Feb 1; 141(2): 261-66
NCHS Data Brief