The last time I visited my parents, I realized that my mom had turned into a bit of a pill popper. The breakfast table was laden with bottles of vitamins and minerals, like a supplement smorgasbord.
“When you’re young, you never think you’re going to be old,” she explained. “I never, never thought I’d be my mother’s age. But it happens. And when it does, you really start thinking of your health much more, simply because you’re concerned about your mortality.”
And by taking all these vitamins and minerals, my mom, age 68, says she hopes to stay healthy, prevent disease and prolong her life.
She’s not alone. Five years ago, supplement users were most interested in meeting recommended daily allowances. The No. 1 reason why people take supplements today, according to a 1995 survey conducted by Applied Biometrics, an independent consulting firm, is because they think taking them will help prevent disease.
And those ranks will grow substantially; market researchers predict aging baby boomers will increasingly turn to supplements and fortified foods to maintain their health.
It’s all part of a shift in thinking: Americans are focusing less on avoidance and more on what A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Applied Biometrics, calls “proactive” nutrition. People are “seeking health-promoting ingredients,” she said.
In fact, for the past six years, there’s been a decline in Americans’ concerns about avoiding fat, cholesterol and sodium, according to Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a market research firm that surveys eating habits. Combine that with already-growing sales of supplements, Balzer said, and “my prediction is that the new health trend for baby boomers will not be avoidance but enhancement with vitamins and minerals.”
Supplementation is “easy health,” Balzer said.
“It fits in just with the way Americans behave,” he said. “You don’t have to change your diet.”
The same goes for those over 65.
“They’re looking for easier ways of handling their lives,” he added.
The Food and Drug Administration reports that more than half of Americans take supplements. That’s a 10 percent growth since 1990. It’s a $4.3 billion market, and as Mary Burnette, spokeswoman for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, put it, “supplements are no longer a fringe thing that people are buying just in health-food stores.”
Currently 28 percent of Americans between 45 and 64 take supplements, according to the Applied Biometrics survey. And 18 percent of seniors take them, the firm reports.
Supplement users of all ages cite disease prevention as the first reason for taking the pills and a desire to “increase energy” as the second.
Not surprisingly, dietitians aren’t thrilled about the pill proliferation. Sheah Rarback, a nutritionist and assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says many of the original studies on the benefits of vitamins and minerals such as antioxidants were based on those nutrients in food, not supplements.
Rarback and others are also concerned that people may be taking single vitamins or minerals indiscriminately to the point where they may interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, or worse, cause toxicity.
“Obviously, not everyone eats perfectly every day,” says Neva Cochran, a nutrition consultant in Dallas. “If it makes you feel more comfortable, a multivitamin is certainly fine.”