Dietary Supplements Tied to 23,000 ER Visits Annually, U.S. Study Says; Too Many Cancer Survivors Choose Poor Diets After Treatment

Dietary supplements result in more than 23,000 emergency room visits a year, according to a major new study by the U.S. government.

Many of theses ER visits involve young adults with heart-related problems after taking supplements marketed as weight-loss or energy-elevating products.

The new study was published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine and led by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It represents the first major review of ER cases tied to dietary supplements, a fast-growing $32 billion a year industry that has drawn scrutiny in recent months and prompted calls for tougher federal regulation of herbal products.

Researchers reviewed emergency room visits at a large network of hospitals around the country over a 10-year period, focusing on those cases implicating a dietary supplement.

More than a quarter of these cases involved young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 years and unsupervised children, the study concluded. The mean age of patients who were treated for supplement-related adverse effects was 32 years. Persons 65 years of age or older were more likely to be hospitalized than were younger persons, with hospitalization rates of 16 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

“After the exclusion of unsupervised ingestion of dietary supplements by children, 65.9% of emergency department visits for single-supplement–related adverse events involved herbal or complementary nutritional products,” researchers said.

These ER visits commonly involve cardiovascular problems from weight-loss or energy products among young adults.

Weight-loss or energy products were implicated in more than half the emergency department visits for adverse reactions to supplements among patients 5 to 19 years of age. Cardiac symptoms (palpitations, chest pain, or tachycardia) were the most common symptoms associated with weight-loss products (in 42.9% of patients) and energy products (in 46.0% of patients).

“These findings can help target interventions to reduce the risk of adverse events associated with the use of dietary supplements,” the study concluded.

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After Surviving Cancer, Patients’ Dietary Habits are Unhealthy, Researchers Say

Surviving cancer apparently isn’t serving as a motivation to improve lifestyle habits, especially when it comes to dieting, according to a new study.

Researchers found that on average, cancer survivors eat less nutritious foods than the overall population, including less fiber and more empty calories.

The results surprised Fang Fang Zhang, an epidemiologist at Tufts University who co-wrote the study published in the journal Cancer. “Cancer survivors are usually motivated to improve their health, so I think it is remarkable that they are still burdened by a sub-optimal diet,” she said.

Zhang’s team compared the diets of 1,533 cancer survivors and 3,075 individuals who never had cancer. The two groups were matched by age, sex and race and ethnicity.

The researchers used the Healthy Eating Index, which is based on the U.S. government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for measuring the quality of the diets. Scores ranged from zero, which means no adherence to the guidelines, to 100, representing total adherence.

After adjusting for age, sex and ethnicity, researchers found that cancer survivors had a lower mean score on the Healthy Eating Index (47.2) than individuals in the non-cancer group (48.3). Cancer survivors also ate less fiber than those who had never had cancer (15 grams per day vs. 15.9 grams per day). They also ate more empty calories, which means more refined sugars and fat.

The difference in scoring may be slight, but Zhang said it is still significant enough to suggest that medical professionals who care for cancer survivors should talk to their patients about nutrition. Cancer survivors often have an elevated risk of chronic health problems.

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