Nov. 22, 2011 at 9:56 AM ET
Taking supplements may lead to poorer health, not because of what they do to your body, but what they do to your mind.
When people take supplements they get a false sense of invulnerability, a new study shows. And that can translate into a greater tendency to head down the path of risky behavior.
The intriguing study published in Psychological Science, found that people didn’t even need to be given real supplements for this devil-may-care attitude to develop – they just needed to be told they were swallowing something healthful.
For their study, Taiwanese researchers gave placebo pills to 82 volunteers, half of whom were told the capsules contained vitamins. The rest were told the truth – that these were simply sugar pills.
The big surprise came when the researchers surveyed the two groups. Those taking phony supplements reported a greater sense of invulnerability and less of a desire to exercise. They also were more likely to consider engaging in casual sex, sunbathing and binge-drinking.
At the end of the study the two groups were told they could choose between a healthful meal and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Sure enough, more of those in the group who were told they'd taken a supplement said they’d prefer the buffet.
The findings come as no surprise to Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“You see this even in professional athletes,” Bonci said. “Sometimes they attribute to supplements superhuman properties that let them off the hook for healthy behaviors. They’ll say, ‘I’m taking this supplement so it doesn’t matter what I eat.’”
Bonci lays the blame on ads that show healthy fit people taking supplements. You don’t see this kind of advertising for all the foods that actually do lead to good health she said.
And those ads lead to unreasonable expectations, Bonci said.
“We this face challenge every day,” she added. “And it’s not just athletes. There are many patients who believe there is exercise in a bottle.”
People have just come to expect that pills can cure everything, said Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Laboratory of Brain, Behavior and Pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We live in a society that is very oriented towards taking medication,” Leuchter said. “People feel like they can take a pill and it will almost immunize them from any unhealthy lifestyle choices”
And then there’s the fact that human beings are very good at keeping two contradictory ideas in their heads at once. “It’s one of those quirks of human nature,” Leuchter said. “We do something we think will enhance our health but at the same time we’re happy to do something that may in the long term be detrimental.”
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