OPINION: This is what Google reveals about how we want to achieve health. Here is how science proves us wrong.
Americans spend more than $3.5 trillion a year on healthcare. That’s $10,739 per person - almost three times the OECD average of $3,854.
More than 65 percent of Americans want to be healthier but don't know how, according to a recent study by the Cleveland Clinic.
Despite the confusion, household spending data shows that the nation is massively turning to dietary supplements. More than half of Americans take vitamin supplements, including 68 percent of those age 65 and older, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.
As the chart below shows, for the past 15 years, people have been searching on Google for the best dietary supplements twice as much as advice for a healthy diet. We seem far more interested in health if it comes from supplements than from committing to healthier food. We’re consistently looking for shortcuts.
Supplements' brands claim that, unlike their peers, their magic promise of health should be trusted. From pyramidal marketing schemes to digital brands mastering the art of digital presence, the supplements industry knew how to age well. Supplements sales are flourishing. Online vitamin and supplement sales are growing 12 percent faster than the e-commerce average.
The Supplements' Promised Land of Health is a Wild West
Since 1994, the supplement industry has been self-regulated. The FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness. You can read this on the FDA official website: "The manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe BEFORE they go to market."
The FDA page also answers some important FAQ, like this one: "Are there any risks in taking supplements? Yes. Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations and hurt or complicate your health."
The biggest challenge with asking Google Search for health advice is confirmation bias. What is labeled healthy is up to whoever can best game the algorithm.
However, a groundbreaking 2019 study conducted by Tufts University and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, settled the debate about whether nutritional supplements are viable alternatives to a healthy diet.
The verdict was clear: health supplements are not substitutes for a balanced diet.
Evidence suggests little to no benefit in taking supplements
The findings of the Association Among Dietary Supplement Use, Nutrient Intake, and Mortality Among U.S. Adults: A Cohort Study shows that certain vitamins and minerals help support a healthy life and prevent people from dying of cardiovascular disease and cancer—but only if those nutrients come from food, not supplements. The study was conducted over a decade and spanned more than 30,000 people.
The research studied whether adequate or excess nutrient intake was associated with death and whether intake from food instead of dietary supplements had any differing effect.
"As potential benefits and harms of supplement use continue to be studied, some studies have found associations between excess nutrient intake and adverse outcomes, including increased risk of certain cancers," said Fang Fang Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and senior and corresponding author on the study.
"It is important to understand the role that the nutrient and its source might play in health outcomes, particularly if the effect might not be beneficial."
On the link between nutrient intake and risk of death, the researchers found that, unlike those coming from food, nutrients coming from supplements were not beneficial: the researchers also found indications that use of vitamin D supplements by individuals with no sign of vitamin D deficiency may be associated with an increased risk of death from all causes, including cancer. Although, further research on this connection is still needed.
Supplements do not fix what a poor diet breaks
Supplements' supporters might argue that nutrients found in food are not always or easily absorbed by our organs and that, given the poor nutritional profile of the Standard American Diet, it's very challenging to meet all daily dietary requirements from food.
You might also hear that soil has been depleted from nutrients and that even by eating fresh food and vegetables, you are unlikely to get all your minerals and nutrients from a fresh salad.
Low-income households suffer the most and have a higher rate of disease for a number of reasons. They often live in food deserts, without access to nutrient-rich food or support at home to afford the time spent on planning and cooking healthy meals.
These points are valid but instead of making the case for supplements, they should push us to examine our food with more scrutiny and commit to making food choices a top priority. Supplements do not fix what a poor diet breaks. The only thing you'd be doing by relying on them is spending money on pills that are, if not harmful, useless at best.
In specific and urgent use-case scenarios, supplements can be a short-term option. Situations such as in developing or war-torn countries with limited access to food or aging populations who aren't able to absorb daily necessary nutrients would be more appropriate audiences for short-term synthetic nutrients under the supervision of a health professional.
Moving from seeking control to seeking tangible results
The crumbling state of public health proves that our devotion to supplement use has been inefficient. Evidence shows there is no substitute for the nutrient-rich and complex delivery system of intake through a balanced diet.
"Dietary supplements are not a substitute for a healthy balanced diet," said the senior author, Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University to the New York Times.
"We should aim for adequate nutrition through diet rather than counting on supplements."
Vitamins and minerals perform critical roles in helping us and the trillions of microbes living in-and-on us thrive - from immune system to metabolism to hormones. If you are already spending time and money to feed yourself multiple times a day, why not claim those vitamins and minerals from your food rather than turning to OTC supplements?
Getting access to meals and snacks optimized for your health is not easy given the confusion from marketing labels of overpriced 'healthy' products. As consumers, we should be entitled to have access to a transparent food system, able to help us prevent, manage and reverse disease efficiently.
*This article was first published by WeTheTrillions