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Blendon RJ, Benson JM, Botta MD, Weldon KJ. Users' Views of Dietary Supplements. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(1):74–76. doi:10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.311
Author Affiliations: Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston (Dr Blendon, Mr Benson, and Ms Weldon), and Program in Health Policy, Harvard University, Cambridge (Mr Botta), Massachusetts.
Despite the rapid growth of the dietary supplement market, little is known about the reasons people take supplements. Awareness of the number of persons using dietary supplements, as well as the range of products they use and their reasons for using them, may help practicing physicians improve their communications with patients.1 In this article, we present findings from a recently conducted nationwide public survey about dietary supplements to report on the purposes for which supplement users take these products and which types they use.
The data are derived from a survey conducted by the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts. Fieldwork was conducted via telephone (landline and cell phone) for the Harvard Opinion Research Program by SSRS of Media, Pennsylvania, from August 11 to September 7, 2011, among a national representative sample of 1579 respondents 18 years and older. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Responses were weighted according to US Census data to reflect the demographic makeup of the adult population. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for total respondents at the 95% confidence level and plus or minus 4.8 percentage points for the 584 dietary supplement users.
In the survey, dietary supplements are described as follows:
. . . dietary supplements other than vitamins and minerals. These kinds of supplements include pills, drops, syrups, and other liquids and capsules made from or containing one or more herbal products, like echinacea, ginseng, probiotics, amino acids, and many other such substances that people take to improve their health and well-being.
Respondents were also instructed to exclude from their responses “foods that people eat, or vitamins and minerals alone, like multivitamins or calcium, or prescription or over-the-counter drugs.” Complete results of the survey are available at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/horp/files/topline_for_report.pdf.
Nearly 4 in 10 American adults (37.8%) reported having taken any dietary supplement in the past 2 years, including 1 in 7 (13.9%) who reported taking supplements regularly. The supplement with the highest level of reported use was fish oil or other omega-3 supplements, with nearly one-fourth of adults (23.9%) reporting having taken these supplements in the past 2 years. Lower proportions—fewer than 1 in 7—reported having taken other types of supplements, such as herbals (12.5%) or probiotics (9.9%).
When dietary supplement users (those who had used dietary supplements in the past 2 years) were asked why they made the decision to use dietary supplements, the most common answers were “to feel better” (41.0%), “to improve your overall energy levels” (40.8%), and “to boost your immune system” (35.9%). Significant numbers of users reported taking supplements for a wide range of other purposes, including “to treat digestive issues” (28.4%), “to relieve pain” (25.5%), “to lower cholesterol” (20.6%), “to lower high blood pressure” (15.7%), “to treat arthritis” (13.3%), and “to improve mood or alleviate depression” (11.9%) (Table).
More than 8 in 10 users (82.3%) considered it important that they have access to supplements, including about half (49.5%) who considered it very important. Also, supplement users were asked about the potential impact of government-sponsored studies on the efficacy of particular dietary supplements that they were taking. Most dietary supplement users said that they would be minimally influenced by government statements contradicting the efficacy claims of supplement manufacturers. Only one-fourth of users (25.4%) responded that they would cease their use of a supplement if public health authorities stated that it was ineffective. This number is the same as that reported in a 2001 study of the attitudes of dietary supplement users.2 The poll also found that more than one-third of supplement users (35.9%) had not told their physician that they use any dietary supplements. Approximately 3 in 10 users (30.9%) said that a physician or nurse had recommended that they take a dietary supplement during the past 2 years, while 5.5% of users said that they had been told by a physician or nurse in the past 2 years to cease use of a dietary supplement.
Our findings indicate that nearly 4 in 10 of the general population are taking dietary supplements, and the reasons for such use are varied, with the most common being general improvements in health and well-being, such as to feel better, to improve overall energy levels, and to boost immune systems. Practicing physicians should be aware that substantial numbers of persons take supplements to treat potentially serious health conditions, and many of them may not share this information with their physicians.
Many of the most commonly stated reasons for use have little connection to specific, measurable health goals and are more likely to be driven by individual perceptions of efficacy than by external scientific statements as to efficacy. As a result, many supplement users are unlikely to change behavior in response to statements from public health authorities about studies showing the ineffectiveness of particular supplements.
Correspondence: Dr Blendon, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Ave, Fourth Floor, Boston, MA 02115 (email@example.com).
Published Online: November 19, 2012. doi:10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.311
Author Contributions: All authors had full access to all the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis. Study concept and design: Blendon, Benson, and Weldon. Acquisition of data: Benson. Analysis and interpretation of data: Blendon, Benson, Botta, and Weldon. Drafting of the manuscript: Blendon and Botta. Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Benson and Weldon. Statistical analysis: Botta. Obtained funding: Blendon. Administrative, technical, and material support: Benson and Weldon. Study supervision: Blendon.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Funding/Support: The survey, part of an ongoing Harvard School of Public Health series focused on the public's response to public health emergencies, was funded under a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC).
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC, the FDA, or the NPHIC.