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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 08/25/2011

Dietary supplements and the licensing effect

Does dutifully taking your multivitamin in the morning allow you to indulge in a hot-fudge sundae for dessert?

In April I blogged about a small study that suggested users of dietary supplements are more likely than non-users to engage in other, less-than-healthful personal behaviors. The study, which I wrote about before it was published earlier this month, concluded that supplement users were more likely to express interest in such activities as casual sex, wild parties and excessive drinking. The lead author, Wen-Bin Chiou of National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, also this month published a study suggesting that smokers who take what they believe are dietary supplements smoke more than smokers who don’t take supplements, presumably because they think the supplements will protect them against smoking’s ill effects.

Those findings don’t sit well with Duffy MacKay, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a dietary supplement trade group. MacKay, whom I interviewed for this week’s “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy” column about dietary supplement use, notes that the phenomenon known as the “licensing effect” may well be in play among some supplement users. “People make excuses for behaviors in all sorts of ways,” he says. “We’re constantly doing risk/benefit analyses in our minds.”

But more supplement users, MacKay says, come to such analyses with a “collection of healthy habits” and, often, a sense of self-discipline that steers them clear of poor health habits. In general, he says, CRN's research shows that people who use dietary supplements tend to take good care of their health, by exercising regularly, visiting their doctor regularly and maintaining a healthful diet.

In his practice as a naturopathic physician, Mackay says, “I’ve observed that kind of rationalization, you treat yourself when you’ve been on good behavior. But the demographic of the supplement user would put a ceiling on that. And hedonistic sex is way above that ceiling.”

Both MacKay and Chiou acknowledge that different scientific disciplines (Chiou’s field is behavioral research) may approach such questions in different ways, leading to disparate findings. And that is the beauty of scientific discourse: Questions get raised, researchers investigate, conversations are spurred.

Let’s have such a conversation here. I’ll start: I take a daily multivitamin, mostly out of habit but also, I think, from a bit of superstition. Deep inside, I fear that if I stop taking it, dire consequences may ensue. But I’m not aware of feeling that popping my daily pill licenses me to eat less healthily or engage in unhealthy behaviors. How about you? Does your use of dietary supplements give you some wiggle room in other aspects of your lifestyle?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 08/25/2011

 
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