Don't fall for the celebrity hype on dietary supplements

Martha Stewart and Nicole Kidman now pitch supplements, though there's little evidence that the pills help

Published: November 2013

When earlier this year Katy Perry tweeted a photo of herself boasting, “I'm all about that supplement & vitamin LYFE,” the message she delivered was not that she was healthy, but that she was gullible. Holding up zip lock bags that appeared to contain dozens of pills labeled "upon rising," "breakfast," and "dinner", Perry showed that even celebrities get duped by the illusion that vitamins and supplements are always good for us—and the more, the better.

Katy Perry tweeted this picture of herself holding up a day's worth of her supplments.

Celebs have even joined the business, and big business it is. The rapper 50 Cent agreed to endorse Vitamin Water in exchange for a reported 10 percent stake in the company, and earned an estimated $60 to $100 million when it was sold to Coca-Cola in 2007. The media mogul Martha Stewart announced in August that she’s launching a new line of nutritional supplements for women, writing in a blog “I’ve taken supplements for years and really understand their benefits, so I was eager to help create something that could become an affordable part of women’s everyday health routine.”

And the actress Nicole Kidman signed on to be the new face of the supplement manufacturer Swisse, one of Australia’s biggest brands that’s just now entering the U.S. market. "I love feeling healthy and fit," Kidman said in ads. "They are wonderful attributes of the Australian way of life," said Kidman, the focus of a series of commercials for krill oil, probiotics, and hair, skin, and nail formulas featuring rainbows, beaches, and sunny skies.

Consumers, too, have bought the hype. More than two thirds of those 18 and older take at least a multivitamin or another dietary supplement, according to a survey of 1,022 U.S. adults conducted in May by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Martha Stewart is launching a new line of supplements for women this month.

Despite that popularity, there are few well-controlled studies that support the benefits of supplemental vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And some of the best studies have not been encouraging. For example, a study published last year of nearly 15,000 older physicians found that those who took a multivitamin every day for about a decade did not have fewer heart attacks or strokes, or live any longer than those who took a placebo bill. Ditto for fish oil supplements, according to a May 9, 2013, New England Journal of Medicine report. And another study earlier this year of almost 400,000 people ages 50 to 71, backed by the National Institutes of Health, linked supplemental calcium with an increased risk of death from heart disease in men.

Although 55 percent of our survey respondents thought that the government required companies to include warnings about the potential dangers and side effects of supplements on labels, no such precaution exists. Unlike prescription medication that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, the FDA does not "approve" dietary supplements for either safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer.

Nicole Kidman now pitches krill oil and other supplements for an Australian company.

Among the known, and most serious risks of supplements is how they can interact with your medication. Vitamin E, for example, can cause bleeding complications and should not be taken with blood thinners or aspirin. And St. John's wort can interact with many drugs, including those to control depression, seizures, and an overactive immune system. Alarmingly, because of inadequate quality control and inspection, it’s hard to know whether supplements contain heavy metals, pesticides, prescription drugs, or other contaminants.

So how can you protect yourself?

Get your nutrients from food

While it may seem easier to meet your daily nutritional requirements from a bottle, it’s usually healthier to achieve those goals through a varied diet of vegetables, fruit, fish, and other healthy foods. Look closely at the Nicole Kidman video and follow her lead: She’s more accurately on the mark eating vitamin-dense green apples and gathering a basket of blackberries.

Look for the 'USP Verified' mark

If you do opt for supplements, look for those with the “USP Verified” symbol. It indicates that the supplement manufacturer has asked the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit, standards-setting organization, to verify the quality, purity, and potency of its raw ingredients or finished products. USP maintains a list of verified products at  

Avoid doctors who want to sell you products

Any doctor who peddles supplements has an inherent conflict of interest, so much so that the American Medical Association advises that if your physicians decide to distribute health-related products to you, she should provide them free of charge or at cost. This removes the temptation of personal profit that can interfere with your physician’s objective clinical judgment.

Talk with your doctor

Surprisingly, more than a quarter of our survey respondents didn’t let their doctor know about all of the vitamins or supplements they were taking. That’s a mistake, since the discussion can help doctors understand your preferences as they work with you to develop a treatment plan. They can also help you evaluate the risks and benefits of supplements, and provide you with resources that can provide additional scientific information such as the National Institutes of Health, Natural Standard, and the FDA.

Orly Avitzur, M.D.

Medical Adviser

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