Learning & Healthy Living

College Students & Supplements

Coffee beer pizza nachos and hot wings are not the only things on college students’ dietary radar these days. Many young people take nutritional supplementation seriously whether for weight gain or loss enhancing athletic performance or simply supporting overall health. A study published recently in the journal Clinical Nutrition compiled data regarding the use of dietary supplements (DS) among college students. Taken together with data from previous surveys it offers a generalized overview of the types of products younger people gravitate toward and their reasons for taking them. Supplementation habits established at a relatively young age may carry over throughout the life cycle so it’s helpful for health care professionals to have insights into younger people’s logic and motivation with regard to their nutritional supplementation choices.

The survey included data from 1248 students from five colleges and universities that were determined to be “representative of the major types of American 4-year colleges and universities including public and private institutions residential and commuter schools and various geographic regions of the U.S.” The most popular DS among survey respondents were multivitamin/multi-mineral supplements (42%); individual vitamins (29%); protein or amino acids (17%); herbal supplements (9%); and combination products (6%). Beyond these products approximately 24% of respondents took supplements that fall into other categories such as caffeine (16%) fish oil (8%) and body building supplements (5%).

Among survey respondents 73% cited supporting general health as their reason for taking supplements. Given the age of these individuals we can speculate that some of them may be pursuing supplementation as a way of potentially protecting themselves against some of the common non-communicable conditions that compromise quality of life in so many millions of people such as diabetes heart disease Alzheimer’s and arthritis. These students may be witnessing the development and progression of these conditions in their parents and grandparents and consequently are becoming more proactive about their own health while they’re still young.

Other top reasons cited for supplement use include increased energy levels (Too many late-night parties? Nah it’s study sessions right?!) increased muscle strength and enhanced athletic performance. A different survey of supplement use among college students echoed improving energy as a main reason and identified illness prevention and bolstering an inadequate diet as additional factors. 

Interesting trends in the data were that males and older students (age 23 and above compared to ages 16-22) spend more money per month on supplements than females and younger students. Sports drinks bars and gels which were excluded from the definition of a “supplement” were far more popular among males than females. Respondents whose body mass index (BMI) fell in the overweight or obese category spend more on supplements per month than individuals who are underweight or at a “healthy” weight. However a larger percentage of individuals looking to gain weight took supplements than those looking to lose or maintain body weight. Those who exercised more than 30 minutes per week were more likely to take supplements than individuals who exercised less than that.

Out of the whole survey population 66% took supplements at least once a week during the six months that preceded the survey broken down as follows: 41% took 1-2 supplements; 13% took 3-4 supplements; and 12% took 5 or more supplements at least once a week. Multivitamins and single vitamins were the two most commonly taken DS with protein and amino acids coming in third. This fits with the finding that individuals looking to gain weight spend more on supplements than those looking to lose or maintain and also that males spend more than females. (It may be that young men with a goal of muscle hypertrophy tend to purchase more bodybuilding supplements which tend to be pricier than products that are seen as less “glamorous” such as vitamin C tablets.) 

Male and female respondents also differed with regard to their sources of information on dietary supplements. Women cited family members as their primary source while men largely sought information on the internet. High percentages of both genders cited friends as another main source and more women than men sought information from health care professionals while more men than women cited magazines and newspapers as a common source.

We cannot necessarily extrapolate data from this study to be representative of the supplementation habits of all college students. Recruitment for the survey was conducted either online at an informational booth or in a classroom. Some students received a $10 monetary incentive; others received extra credit in class. Students who respond to a call for subjects regarding a survey on nutritional supplements may be more inclined than the larger population to take nutritional supplements.

The study authors were careful to note that college students are among the healthiest groups in the U.S. population and some may be over-supplementing: “It appears most students are taking DS to fix a problem that they probably do not have and that is not present in the majority of the general U.S. population.” However this does not take into account the potential benefit of exceeding the paltry recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for particular nutrients especially for students who may be under heavy amounts of stress coupled with inadequate sleep. Nevertheless it is possible for young people to induce micronutrient excesses via overzealous supplementation which in some cases may be just as harmful as deficiencies. Health care professionals should make an effort to speak with their patients about supplementation habits and understand the rationale for supplementation in order to provide tailored guidance on compounds that may be beneficial for their individual circumstances and goals.