Five Surprising Take-Aways from Surveys into Dietary Supplement Use
I found two large surveys about over the counter dietary supplement use in the UK after researching my hypothesis on ‘middle class supplementation’.
While looking into Quercetin, I wondered whether people most likely to supplement with it were the least likely to have lifestyles contributing to oxidative stress?
Two surveys (linked at the end) went one step further.
They asked about people’s reasons for taking dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals, fish oils and antioxidants. Interesting patterns emerged by comparing these reasons with what people actively took, demographics and health status.
70% Response Rate
The biggest survey had a >70% response rate.
Let’s keep in mind that the demographics of those that did not respond and those that did are likely to be different. For example, someone educated in outcomes of different supplements and actively taking them for specific purposes is far more likely to reply than someone on a fast-food diet who thinks it’s all nonsense.
Below are my five take-aways from surveys on dietary supplements:
#1 – A Single Multivitamin is the Most Popular Option
When you take out the people taking a single daily multivitamin, the use of dietary supplements drops off a cliff.
While not a surprise, it does tell a story about the thought processes behind supplementation.
They are taken as a general health boost, rather than for a specific need or to counter a specific deficiency. Examples of those reasons include:
- Boosting vitamin D during those dark winter days.
- Adding Omega 3 fish oil to balance the lack of oily fish (or flax seeds) in your diet.
- Taking additional zinc when there are respiratory diseases going around.
People have busy lives. The one pill to feel like doing something positive for health is completely understandable.
While it misses specifics, the contents of your typical off the shelf multivitamin is unlikely to do harm.
#2 – Education Level is a Significant Factor in Dietary Supplement Use
My ‘middle class supplements’ hypothesis is backed by the findings.
One survey found that 63% of people with a university degree take dietary supplements. This is significantly higher than the 45% of people with up to secondary education.
I’d like to go further into this topic and split out those taking supplements for specific health conditions or life events (pregnancy, older age supplements and so on).
Does the lower education group get boosted by these ‘doctor’s advice’ scenarios?
The lowest educated are least likely to have responded to the survey at all. I’ll also add my own bias, that bodybuilders (who take a lot of supplements) come from a *cough* wide range of educational / demographic backgrounds.
#3 – High Levels of Supplementation for Specific Life Events
My take away from people taking supplements for life events is the power of social groups.
Pregnancy, health issues, and hitting age milestones are all reasons for beginning dietary supplements. It was the reason that these life events triggered purchases that was interesting. Peer groups, online communities, and family. This is markedly different from the reasons given for general (multivitamin) supplement purchases, which respondents attributed to a more general ‘do something positive for my health’ decision.
People with specific health conditions including diabetes and depression also took supplements specifically to help.
#4 – Assumption of Safety when Mixed with Prescription Medicines
Discussing your supplements with your doctor is a must – especially when you are prescribed drugs.
Interactions are complex.
While drug / supplement interactions may not be dangerous, they could dull the effectiveness of a drug, or interact in a way that makes a different drug preferable.
Yet a clear of people surveyed simply assumed dietary supplements are safe – and did not consider interactions with other drugs or supplements.
Knowledge interactions between the supplements themselves was not part of these surveys. I’m thinking along the lines of multiple antioxidants triggering the same cellular pathways, or supplementing iron without knowing your current ferritin levels.
#5 – Trust in Major Retail Brands
Using big retailers in the UK (thinking Boots et al) as a proxy for trust / quality was a surprise for me.
One survey highlighted a mistrust of online retailers, especially brands which are not well known.
Naturally, large organisations will be cautious. They don’t want a scandal with branded supplements that do harm and the class action lawsuits that could follow.
Then again, their incentives are profit. This does not match the incentives of the people taking supplements at all.
Do people really trust a retailer that would put a thicker coating on vitamin C, double the price and call it ‘slow release’. Or who sell high-dose vitamins (again for higher prices) where there is little benefit if you do not have a clinical deficit.
For me, this ties in with the single pill as the most common form of supplementation. People want a quick win, not to spend their mental energy on the details of what their specific needs are.
Overall, they might be right!
Does this Apply to Longevity Supplements?
My impression of the longevity / health span improvement community is that it is educated, aware of the science and (mostly) safety conscious.
That said, the longevity supplement landscape is far from clear. Should we mix resveratrol with quercetin? How does hormetic stress from cold plunges interact with NMN?
I can’t help but wonder, if there was a single longevity multi-supplement, would it gain traction among people that are interested the science, though not ‘down the rabbit hole’ in the same way as the current longevity science community?
Here are the Full Surveys:
More Popular Pages this Month:
- What is Minimum Viable Exercise for Longevity
- Testing Your Biological Age
- CBD-I and Longevity (sleep)