Well Bella: Change Agent

By:  Amanda Thomason

Sen. Martin Heinrich talks about why preventive health care is the key to slashing medical costs—and altering people’s lives for the better.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) might be a newcomer to the U.S.  Senate, but he is no political neophyte. Throughout two terms as a U.S. congressman and, before that, as an Albuquerque city council member and president, Heinrich has built a reputation in politics as a staunch supporter of both the wellness of the planet and the people inhabiting it. The young senator is also establishing a reputation as a supporter for the supplement industry as a whole, most recently by cosigning proposed legislation that makes it harder for unscrupulous, fly-by-night hucksters who illegally spike supplements with prescription drugs—namely, steroids—to stay in business. The bill, known as the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014 (S. 2012), is strongly supported by the supplement industry and its associations, including the American Herbal Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the Natural Products Association and others. And Heinrich, like the other senators involved in the bill, has been lauded by these groups for his efforts to help get it passed.

But making sure that consumers aren’t victimized by tainted products is just one item on this lawmaker’s agenda. As an advocate and consumer of nutritional supplements himself, Heinrich has come to recognize their important role in much bigger issues, such as improving health care in this country, reducing medical costs and helping people live healthier lives overall. Here, we caught up with the senator to talk about a topic he’s passionate about, and why he hopes other Americans are, too.

wb | You’re a first-term senator and you’ve already shown a tendency to support the nutrition and dietary supplement industry. Could you elaborate on your position?
sh | Sure. I think a lot of it grew out of the passion for this industry in New Mexico and also a personal history of really believing in people trying to address health through prevention and wellness.

When my wife and I graduated from college and were settling down in Albuquerque, one of the first things we did was join the local food co-op, which was also a huge retailer of supplements. And that was part of an approach of trying to be healthy up front, instead of trying to fix things after the fact.

There’s an enormous shift that needs to take place in this country’s view of how we deal with health and wellness if we’re going to meet the challenges that exist within health care and financing health care. I see dietary supplements and herbal products as one facet of engaging individuals to be in control of their health and reducing a lot of downstream illness and costs.

wb | As a country, we don’t have the best reputation for nutritious living. What do you think needs to be done to better educate the public about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and the role that dietary supplements can play in this shift?
sh | Part of the problem is cultural. We send a lot of mixed signals. We watch the Olympics and see these Olympic athletes, and then we see these commercials around the Olympics for very unhealthy food products. I think we need a lot more education about what a healthy lifestyle looks like, and it needs to start at an early age. It’s helpful to have publications such as this one that allow people to think about that, to see the different faces of what that lifestyle is [all about] and how supplements, nutrition and exercise add up to a life that is well lived and as free from illness as possible.

wb | How important is the role of dietary supplements in preventing chronic disease?
sh | Their return on investment is substantial. When you consider a number of chronic diseases such as osteoporosis and diabetes, [supplements as prevention] are a better use of a dollar than waiting until you have a very serious problem and try to correct it through intensive medication. Whether it’s vitamin D or fish oil, supplements have been shown to be a very positive part of shifting health care and wellness costs upstream, rather than pushing them downstream, where you have huge costs and also very serious impacts on people’s lives.

wb | In fact, there’s a 2013 report from Frost & Sullivan that cites significant savings associated with dietary supplement use. For example, with coronary heart disease, the use of omega-3 fatty acids could save $2.06 billion per year.
sh | That’s an enormous figure. And behind those numbers are people who have real stories. If we can keep people healthy and out of the hospital, the benefits to them and their families are significant.

wb | What needs to happen in order to bring a more positive perception of the supplement industry to the media and public?
sh | One thing is letting people know how few adverse events happen within the supplement industry. Typically when [an adverse event] does occur, it makes a big story. But when you put that in the context of the millions of people who utilize these products safely and effectively, you get a much more accurate story. Also, [it’s important] to make clear what role the existing regulatory structure plays and that DSHEA [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994], in particular, is working.

wb | Do you use dietary supplements?
sh | I do. From multivitamins to fish oil to protein supplements, there are a number of different products I use.

wb | Has this regimen always been a part of your lifestyle, or did you have an “Aha!” moment?
sh | I think I realized a couple of years ago in the House of Representatives that, even though I’ve always had a real ethic in terms of trying to eat healthy, at some point I strayed from that. I realized I had to get more control over my exercise regimen, my schedule and the kind of food I was cooking and eating. I had to put together a lifestyle that maintained my health, because I had neglected that for a number of years and it was starting to show. I wasn’t as healthy as I used to be. I had gained a lot of weight, and you can only put that stuff off for so long before you feel the consequences.

wb | Are you passing the health-conscious lifestyle on to your children? 
sh | We try very hard to model good dietary behavior for them, expose them to a lot of diversity in their diets and help them see what it means to have a healthy lifestyle.

wb | You also support clean energy, are a proponent of preserving wildlife and public lands and are an avid sportsman. Would you say that dietary supplement consumption is simply one component for someone who wants to live a life of general wellness?
sh | That’s exactly right. It’s important for people to view them as part of an overall approach to their nutrition. There is no silver bullet. You really have to have a number of things working together to make the best of your own personal health situation.