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Supplements we take mostly not ordered by doctors, study says

February 05, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Kale and other dark green leafy vegetables contain calcium.
Kale and other dark green leafy vegetables contain calcium. (David Karp / For The Times )

There is oh, so much publicity about fish oil pills, calcium and vitamin D – let alone the many more unusual dietary supplements. Are Americans persuaded?

About half of U.S. adults use dietary supplements, and less than a quarter of the people who take them do so at the advice of a healthcare professional, according to a survey of almost 12,000 people in 2007 to 2010 published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. Americans spent more than $30 billion on supplements in 2011.

Asked why, 45% of the people said they used supplements to improve overall health and 33% to maintain health. Other reasons included to get more energy (11%), for mental health (4%) and weight loss (3%). Multivitamin-mineral supplements were the most commonly used supplements – followed by fatty acids and fish oils.

People who used supplements also had lower body mass index, reported moderate alcohol use, exercised more and smoked less, and had health insurance.

It is difficult, the study authors said, to “disentangle the effects of healthy food and lifestyle choices from the use of dietary supplements in epidemiologic research.” And the use of supplements is controversial because of lack of sufficient research as well as conflicting evidence about whether they work.

For example, the study cited, two analyses have reached different conclusions about whether glucosamine and chondroitin work against arthritis symptoms.

Another article in the journal looked at calcium supplements; the research suggested that a high intake of calcium supplements is associated with an excess risk of death due to cardiovascular disease in men but not in women. The study looked at nearly 400,000 people ages 50 to 71 in several areas of the United States.

“Compared with nonusers, men with an intake of supplemental calcium of more than 1,000 milligrams per day had a significantly higher risk of total CVD death and heart disease death,” the researchers, lead by Qian Xiao of the National Cancer Institute, wrote.

In a commentary in the journal, Susanna Larsson of the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote that calcium supplements “have traditionally been considered a safe alternative to meet calcium requirements.” But she noted that too much supplemental calcium might have an adverse effect on cardiovascular health.

Until more research is done, she wrote, “a safe alternative … is to consume calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat dairy foods, beans and green leafy vegetables, which contain not only calcium but also a cocktail of essential minerals and vitamins.”

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