The survey, funded by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, was conducted nationwide from November 2005 to January 2006. Nearly half of the respondents, or 1,444 people, said they had made a serious attempt to lose weight at some point in time for at least three days. Of these, approximately one third said they used supplements while only 15 percent used prescription drugs.
The results are encouraging for nutraceutical manufacturers: use of dietary supplements and herbal products came in third place, behind self-directed exercise and dieting, with 90 percent and 72 percent respectively.
Physician-patient communication also stands out in the survey results as a key issue potentially blocking the effective and supervised use of dietary supplements. Researchers reported 40 percent of obese respondents had never been advised by their doctor to lose weight, and even less respondents indicated they would approach their doctor on the subject.
While the debate over whether dietary supplements or pharmaceutical products are more effective for weight loss is inconclusive and polarized, the fact that the US is facing a huge weight problem is undeniable.
Based on National Institutes of Health figures, 65 percent of US adults are overweight or obese - leading to high risk of health problems such as hypertension, type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
The survey also raised important questions relating to consumer awareness of dietary supplement ingredients and their effects.
According to the researchers, 64 percent of those surveyed believed dietary supplements are required to print warnings about potential side effects when, in fact there is no such requirement yet.
In June, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that would oblige supplement manufacturers, packers and distributors to notify FDA of any serious adverse events reports (AERs) was introduced, to the applause of industry associations. The move is seen by many as a means of promoting responsible marketing of dietary supplements while not inflicting lengthy pre-market regulation on the industry.
Unlike pharmaceuticals, which must go through a series of pre-market approvals, finished dietary supplements need no pre-market approval and therefore are relatively free to go on retail shelves before any problems can be brought to the attention of federal authorities.
The dietary supplement industry is regulated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which is part of the Food and Cosmetics Act. Under DSHEA, only ingredients not marketed in the US before October 1994 must be approved by the FDA before being used in consumer products.
The University of Connecticut's survey was conducted by its Center for Survey Research & Analysis (CSRA), which reported a sample of 3,500 telephone interviews for a response rate of 28 percent.
The study was a collaboration between the CSRA, researchers from the University of Pennysylvania's Center for Weight Loss and GlaxoSmithKline's Consumer Healthcare division.