A Supplement is Not a Substitute: Keeping Diabetes Patients Focused on What Matters Most

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by David Hite PhD

Recently, one of my diabetes patients commented that she enjoyed watching Dr. Oz, but worried that if she bought all of the supplements he recommended she would need an extra room in the house and a second job. Americans spend 25 billion dollars on supplements and herbs each year in an effort to improve their health. A physician survey found that 44% of their patients admit to taking at least one over-the-counter supplement. What are patients to think about the hype they hear about supplements? And what should we be telling them when even the experts don’t agree? Are our patients gaining any benefit from these treatments or are they wasting their money?

We live in a culture where we’ve been taught from birth that from headaches to hemorrhoids, there’s a pill for every ill. I believe this mindset has blinded us to the bigger picture of what it means to be healthy and how to best achieve it. I visited the website of a popular health guru and answered a questionnaire purporting to optimize my purchase of herbs, vitamins and minerals. The price for his ‘optimized’ treatment plan came to about $50 for a one month supply. I could buy those new Nikes and a gym membership and benefit more. Lifestyle changes are the most powerful prescription for the prevention or treatment of chronic conditions such as diabetes.

To be fair, some supplements have shown efficacy or at least promise. If we’re going to take something we want some assurance that it’s going to help. But it’s more than just about whether something has been found to have a positive effect. It’s also about the degree to which it’s effective in relationship to other factors. Supplements are at best enhancements that support the hard work we do every day.

As health practitioners, we must continue to base our advice on evidence-based medicine. I keep an open mind about the efficacy of over-the-counter supplements, but I’m cautious about recommending them. The prescription I offer is to eat better, move more, get a good night’s sleep, and surround yourself with things that give you joy. When a patient asks me about the benefits of taking an over-the-counter product, I first try to determine the motive for the question. Are they asking about a supplement or looking for a substitute? Many of them are, like W.C. Fields, looking for a loophole.

Becker C, Salahi L. Supplements No Substitute for Healthy Diet. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AlternativeMedicineSupplements/vitamins-sup.... Published October 29, 2010. Accessed November 29, 2012.

Mayo Clinic staff. Nutrition and healthy eating. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/supplements/NU00198. Published November 4, 2012. Accessed November 29, 2012.

Patterson J. Vitamin supplements no substitute for healthy eating. Las Vegas Review-Journal. http://www.lvrj.com/health/vitamin-supplements-no-substitute-for-healthy.... Published October 5. Updated April 10, 2012. Accessed November 29, 2012.

Rabin RC. Curbing the Enthusiasm on Daily Multivitamins. The New York Times. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/curbing-the-enthusiasm-on-daily.... Published October 22, 2012. Accessed November 29, 2012.

About The Author
David Hite PhD, is a lifelong educator, spending 20 years teaching biology, chemistry, and health education at the high school and community college levels, two years teaching science at Cairo American College in Egypt, and two years at Shanghai American School in China. Dr. Hite developed the patient-friendly "Take Control - Diabetes Basics", a diabetes educational DVD used by clinicians to encourage their patients to implement and maintain effective self-care strategies, and has spent the past 11 years working daily with diabetes patients as a Clinical Health Educator in the Chronic Conditions Management Department for a large non-profit healthcare provider in Sacramento, California. Dr. Hite is a member of the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and the American Diabetes Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of DiabetesProductSource, Kestrel Health Information, Inc., its affiliates, or subsidiary companies.

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