Thursday, August 15, 2013

Selling the Supplement Story

I have a hard time accepting any health practitioner who dispenses both nutrition guidance and supplements, let alone one of my own kind, a Registered Dietitian, who advocates strongly for “healing” through a real food diet but (in case that doesn’t quite work out), is quick to point you to her online supplement store.  

As a Registered Dietitian, my job is to provide people with nutrition recommendations grounded in science, along with the accompanying assistance to help make lasting and effective health-improving lifestyle changes. Dietitians have an obligation to protect clients and the public from misleading, ineffective nutrition information and products—bearing this responsibility certainly rules out selling dubious supplements ourselves.

So why do some health practitioners still succumb to selling supplements? Understandably, many people today are seeking extra income, and this is one way to potentially garner a handsome little side profit; however, there are many serious concerns with health professionals, specifically dietitians in private practice, selling and profiting from supplements.

Conflict of interest and ethical matters

I think that recognizing the ethical shortcomings inherent in a dietitian’s sales and marketing of supplements is the first step, and it’s not hard to see the problem: having a financial stake in recommending any health product is a major conflict of interest. The dietitian’s opportunity for financial gain is perceptibly close—and this can easily drown out the voice of professional responsibility in favor of a sale.

Moreover, dietetics practitioners are unmistakably supposed to stay clear of any act that may affect their professional judgment, according to our Code of Ethics. Prescribing, then selling and profiting from supplements clearly challenges the dietitian’s responsibility to put the client’s interests in front of the possibility to pad her own pocketbook.

Evidence to support the supplement claims—belief versus science

I think it is important to point out that unlike prescription drugs, nutritional supplements do not have to be proved effective or safe before they go on the market. Additionally, their labels don’t have to warn about side effects, even for products with real hazards. This alone should give anyone pause before choosing to take a supplement. 

And while there are definitely some instances in which supplementation can be beneficial (consider women of childbearing years, pregnant women, vegans or strict vegetarians, or people who are malnourished, etc), there is a ridiculous number of supplements available touting benefits that have never actually been scientifically proven. It is the latter, in this case, that I am most concerned about. 

It’s easy for someone to say she recommends something because she “believes” it works. Actually, this makes me think of all the women in my life (including myself, sadly) who spend way too much time researching, testing, hoping, and eventually believing in the wrinkle-reducing face cream du jour, only to end up with wrinkles anyway. Why do we do it? Because we BELIEVE it will help, and heck, it’s better than the risk of doing nothing! Despite all the money and time spent, guess what? At 65, we’re going to have wrinkles!

So while it’s easy to believe something works, it is a bit harder to come up with solid research supporting why you “believe” people need to be popping pills for every life stage and condition imaginable. There’s really a bottle of magic for pretty much everything, folks. Here’s what one dietitian’s online supplement store is selling products for:

·       Healthy testosterone balance
·       Prostate & urinary health
·       Healthy libido & sexual function
·       Blood sugar balance and supporting sensitive blood sugar levels
·       Immune health
·       Joint/muscle/bone health
·       Metabolic detox remedies to help the body’s natural cleansing and filtering processes
·       Overcoming cravings and balancing brain chemicals
·       Pregnancy nutrition
·       Sexual health
·       Balancing estrogen and testosterone levels
·       Sleep
·       Sports nutrition
·       Essentials for weight loss
·       Healthy kids
·       Heartburn/reflux
·       General wellness
·       Digestion and gut health
·       Protein powders and supplements, and
·       Superfood & antioxidant formulas  

Why do people need to go to the doctor anymore if we have all this? Why are there people in the world still suffering from hot flashes, candy bar cravings, lack of libido, the common cold, being overweight, or digestive issues if all of these miraculous remedies for sale ACTUALLY WORK? COME ON, people!  

Another common method to justify selling supplements with questionable benefits is the “I use it myself” explanation. No scientific evidence to support the recommendation? No problem. “I take this myself and haven’t had a craving in 9 ½ years! And the best part is, I sell this pill right here in my office—for just $35 a bottle!”

Well isn’t that convenient?

Skirting the issue with the “high-quality” farce

One effective way to sidestep the big concern of “is this supplement actually PROVEN to provide advantageous health benefits?” is to frequently recount the importance of choosing only the highest quality supplements—the best of the best—and then handily offer those top-notch pills.

I had an experience with exactly this in my private practice a few years ago that may shed some light on the tactic at play here. I was approached by a chiropractor who sold a variety of supplements in his own practice, and was reaching out to other health practitioners offering them a chance to sell this line of supplements, too, thereby increasing overall sales. Though I had no intent to take the chiropractor/salesman up on his offer, I wanted to hear him out and learn from what he was doing. Despite the obvious ethical concern—most of the products to be sold were inefficacious—what I really found interesting were the marketing tactics encouraged. If I were to start offering these products for sale in my practice, the most profitable marketing message to drive home to my clients would be that these supplements were of the highest quality—they were the most well-absorbed and effective, not to mention completely free of contaminants, additives, or fillers.

Sound familiar?

Additionally, the money-making prospect this chiropractor laid out for me was divine. Describing how the supplement-selling program worked, he explained that he was on a 10-year plan and was to be making six digits in supplement sales (not counting his chiropractic work) at the end of this time period!

Needless to say, the warning bells were ringing loud and clear, and I couldn’t get away fast enough from this unscrupulous scheme.

So if you come across a dietitian selling her own supplements who really “feels” that her products are so much better than cheaper alternatives, or who says she truly “believes” that the only supplements good enough for her clients are the ones she is selling? Think twice. Either she has been hoodwinked by marketing, or she’s working on hoodwinking you—perhaps a little of both.

Food and lifestyle change first, unsubstantiated supplements never

Popping a pill when you have a sugar craving doesn’t teach you how to deal with cravings. It is a temporary crutch (one unsupported by science, I might add). There is no long-term benefit to supposedly easing your way through a craving with a pill—even worse, this makes you feel reliant on a quick-fix and doesn’t create any new, healthy habits that decrease the likelihood, frequency, or intensity of a craving. Is it too much work for dietitians to address the underlying habitual and environmental causes of cravings with their clients?

Reestablishing a healthy relationship with food has ZERO to do with popping pills and EVERYTHING to do with the much more difficult-to-sell long-term investment in lifestyle change.

Bottom line is this

If you are trying to improve your health and seeking the advice of any health professional, you should know that over the past couple of decades, study after study researching the health effects of large doses of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other substances have found no significant benefits. Worse, some of these studies have revealed health concerns with taking these products. I can only encourage you to do your own research, seek out several OBJECTIVE health professionals (those who don’t sell supplements), and make an informed decision about what you decide to put into your body.

And if you are a health professional who “believes” in the value of unscientifically supported supplements, it’s time to choose which side of the fence you want to be on: client care, advocating, science, and teaching, OR retail, sales, and product marketing.

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