Amish people can seem a little health-obsessed. At least that’s the impression you get when perusing Amish publications, filled as they often are with advertisements for a wide range of health-enhancing products.  Many Amish purchase piles of vitamins and supplements via local dealers and mail order.

You can also point to the organic food movement, which has spawned Amish evangelists who believe in the health benefits of their chemical-free products as much as they do their power to earn an extra dollar. Not to mention the prevalence of unorthodox health practices, including home remedies.

Regardless of the veracity of the treatments, examples like these put the lie to the idea that the Amish disregard health or rely strictly on God’s providence to assure their well-being. Amish actively try to preserve and enhance their health, even if some of the methods and means are unconventional.

Amish Health VitaminsLet’s take a look at one category popular among Amish–vitamins and supplements. Should I take them? This is a question that I kick around from time to time, often when reading the latest headlines seemingly proving the effectiveness or futility of a given pill.

I used to be something of a vitamin person–or I was at least regular about taking them.  Nothing exotic–a multi-vitamin as well as glucosamine and chondroitin for my joints a regular basis.  I stopped some years ago.

Today I seem to feel okay, and rarely get ill. The knee joints only act up when I crack 8-10 miles on my runs.  I try to eat well (though junky food sneaks in more than it should). I exercise regularly, though don’t quite get the sleep I’d like. Would taking vitamins enhance my well-being and assure me greater health?

It’s a tough question–one that seems hard to prove either way. Maybe I’ll get a disease decades from now that could have been averted had I been popping this or that pill daily.

That is the seductive pull of vitamins and supplements. If it can’t hurt you, and it might help you, then isn’t it wise to be taking as much of this stuff as possible? Or as you can possibly afford?

Health marketing

Vitamin and supplements companies rely on this line of thinking. Companies that sell health products on a multi-level-marketing basis have long operated in Amish communities. The tight social networks and emphasis on health have made the Plain market attractive to supplement dealers.

The topic has stirred opinion in Plain circles going back decades. Right now I’m looking at a 1994 issue of Family Life* in which the question is posed by a skeptical asker:

“Is it right to encourage people to buy these expensive products when we know the reason they are so expensive is because of the sales program, and because so many people are making money off of them? Did God plan that our bodies should depend on products such as these in order to stay healthy?”

Reader responses range from the highly negative–warning against the manipulative sales nature of the health schemes–to those that advise against knee-jerk disdain for the program simply because hard-working sellers are being rewarded for their efforts to help enhance others’ well-being.

For instance, a Maine reader calls the program “nothing more than a variation of the Pyramid scam…these sales programs sell products that are not superior enough to their competitors’ products to be worth the extra costs…becoming a “distributor” puts you in the uncomfortable position of trying to sell to friends, relatives, and whoever crosses your path.”

“A Pennsylvania Midwife” responds:  “I feel that being signed up to sell “Nutrition” is an honest business, and it is serving humanity.  It can help to save bigger bills later on.  Some people will not take any responsibility for their own health, and then when they have a problem they expect the doctors to fix it.”

The Amish example is echoed in the greater public, where the health supplement market has exploded in recent years.  I’m finding a range of recent estimates for supplement industry value–most placing it in the tens of billions of dollars.

Regardless of the exact figure, a lot of us seem to be convinced the pills and liquids are making us better off.  And maybe they are–or at the least, they can’t hurt, right?

So what do you think–are vitamins and supplements worth it?

*See: “The Problem Corner”, Family Life, August/September 1994
Photo credit: Shannon Kringen/flickr

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