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Dietitians Take Supplements, Do You?

Dietary supplements

Tens of millions of Americans take dietary supplements, but have you ever wondered how many health professionals take them and which ones they believe are important? A new study in Nutrition Journal reports that about three-quarters of dietitians take supplements regularly, and their choices and reasons for taking them vary considerably.

Do you need a supplement?

The general consensus among healthcare professionals is that a person’s nutritional needs should be met mainly through diet, and one that preferably includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and unrefined or minimally processed foods. However, dietary supplements can help fill the gaps when following a healthy diet isn’t always possible and provide nutrients in situations such as illness, pregnancy, excessive stress, chronic poor eating habits, food allergies, and other factors that can affect food choices.

According to the 2009 “Life…supplemented” Healthcare Professionals Impact Survey, registered dietitians fill those gaps in high numbers. Of the 300 survey participants (none of whom had any ties with supplement or pharmaceutical companies or advertising), 74% used dietary supplements regularly and 22% used them seasonally or occasionally.

Which supplements are dietitians taking? In addition to multivitamin use within the past year by 84%, the respondents also reported taking calcium (63%), omega-3 or fish oil supplements (47%), vitamin D (43%), vitamin C (29%), probiotics (24%), B vitamins (23%), fiber (22%), and green tea supplements (18%).

How do these numbers compare with the general public? According to the National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief from April 2011, 54% of adults in the United States use dietary supplements, but this number varies within different populations. For example, 55% of women ages 31 to 50 and 72% of women 51 to 70 use dietary supplements.

Multivitamin/multiminerals were reported to be the most commonly used supplement, taken by about 40% of men and women. Sixty-one percent of women age 60 and older took calcium supplements, while 34% of women 20 to 39 years said they took folic acid.

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Vitamin D supplementation varied greatly by age, ranging from 33.8% among women age 20 to 39 years to 56.3% among women age 60 and older. Among men, the respective figures were 26.5% and 44%.

Why dietitians take supplements
Dietitians in the study said they took supplements for bone health (58%), to enjoy overall health and wellness benefits (53%), and to fill gaps in their diet (42%). When dietitians recommended supplements to their clients (97% of those in the survey did), their reasons for doing so were for bone health (70%), fill gaps in the diet (67%), overall health (49%), help lower cholesterol (46%), heart health (46%), dietary habit/vegetarian/vegan (43%), gastrointestinal health (39%), diabetes control (27%), and eating disorders (19%).

One question that sometimes arises when studies of supplement use are conducted is whether people who take supplements also engage in other healthful habits. This appears to be the case based on the findings of the “Life…supplemented” survey.

Among the surveyed dietitians, 96% said they tried to eat a balanced diet, 92% were managing stress, 86% visited their healthcare professional regularly, 83% said they exercised regularly, 80% maintained a healthy weight, and 72% said they got enough sleep. Unhealthy habits included 3% who smoked or drank a large amount of alcohol, and 24% who said they often consumed large amounts of caffeine.

The survey’s authors explained that “dietitians are uniquely qualified to evaluate the adequacy of nutrient intake and to make rational choices about dietary supplement use for themselves and for their clients or patients, when appropriate.” These survey results indicate that dietitians practice what they preach. Do you need to take supplements?

Dickinson A et al. Dietitians use and recommend dietary supplements: report of a survey. Nutrition Journal 2012, 11:14 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-14
Gahche J et al. Dietary supplement use among US adults has increased since NHANES III (1988–1994). National Center for Health Statistics, April 2011

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