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Cult Med Psychiatry. 2006 Jun;30(2):175-222.

For my wellness, not just my illness: North Americans' use of dietary supplements.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, 85721, USA.


Passage of the DSHEA in 1994 created a new "liminal" category for the FDA: dietary supplements are regulated as neither food nor drugs. However, there appears to be a significant disconnect between the "official" discourse surrounding dietary supplements and supplement users' actual practices. Despite this discrepancy, and the inadequacy of surveys to capture the dynamics of pharmaceutical practice, there is little ethnographic information available on the ways that Americans think about or use dietary supplements. We offer some preliminary observations from a pilot ethnographic study of Americans' use of dietary supplements in which we consider not only the reasons why people are using supplements, but how they are using them, and how their experimentation has been influenced by the information they seek and receive from a variety of sources. We illustrate how anthropological studies of supplement related practice can help us better understand Americans' attraction to and use of dietary supplements, and suggest that anthropology can contribute to a more balanced perspective on supplement use-one that moves the study of supplements beyond surveys and randomized controlled studies of efficacy to considerations of patterns of use in context, user expectations, and measures of perceived effectiveness.

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