I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Medical textbooks are mostly silent on the subject of magic; medical school professors rarely lecture on the topic. Yet, “magic” seems to get mentioned a lot by Dr. Mehmet Oz on his personal health show on American television. He also publishes a magazine under his name and runs a much-viewed website.
The doctor’s profile photograph on Facebook (more than six million likes) shows a man sent over from central casting to play the surgeon in a daytime hospital drama, and be the cause of all the young nurses swooning. After all he’s one of People magazine’s “sexiest men alive.” He’s not quite the hunk he used to be (turning 50 will do that to you) but he is still immensely popular, with the ability to move product off store shelves like – well - magic.
The Recommendations of Dr. Oz
Dr. Mehmet Oz is a professor of surgery at Columbia University. He has degrees from Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Wharton School. In short, he is a highly educated and experienced physician.
However, diet supplements are big in the world of Dr. Oz.
One of his big things has been green coffee beans. Dr. Oz does not hold back in his praise: “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type.”
Pop these magic beans and, says Dr. Oz, a new study “showed people lost 17 pounds in 22 weeks by doing absolutely nothing but taking this ‘miracle pill.’ ” (Slate, January 2013).
Before that it was raspberry ketone: “It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”
How about forskolin that is produced by the Indian coleus plant? According to Dr. Oz, if people take this it will make “stubborn belly fat instantly disappear.” He calls it the “InstaBellyMelt.”
“Try alpha-cyclodextrin (FBCx),” says Dr. Oz. “This amazing cutting-edge fibre could have a huge weight-loss impact.”
There isn’t much science to back up the claims of Dr. Oz.
Dr. Oz usually mentions that tests have proven the efficacy of the products he praises, but people who know science say the studies he references are suspect.
In the case of green coffee beans, data supporting its fat-busting claims were based on a study of 16 people in India that was carried out by the company promoting the supplement.
The forskolin study was also done by the company that sells it.
Raspberry ketones have never been studied in humans.
Tamarind (garcinia cambogia), says Dr. Oz “is a revolutionary fat buster … It just might be the most exciting breakthrough in natural weight loss to date.” Uh-uh say the medical professionals. Here’s Women’s Health magazine: the use of garcinia cambogia extract is “linked to multiple hospitalizations, says medical weight-loss expert Sue Decotiis, M.D.”
Dr. Oz Called to Task
Dr. Arthur Caplan is the Director, Division of Medical Ethics at New York University. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (June 2014) that “Dr. Oz is basically promoting fairy dust.” He adds that he’s “getting too far down the road of non-traditional medicine, alternative medicine, and then even further into unproven, even shyster medicine.”
Dr. Caplan suggested Dr. Oz might be treading on very thin legal ice. Other physicians have said Dr. Oz should lose his license to practice medicine. One, Dr. David Gorski, calls him a “quackademic.”
In June 2014, Dr. Oz got a very public dressing-down by a U.S. Congressional committee investigation diet-pill scams.
Claire McCaskill, chair of the consumer protection panel, told Oz “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why do you cheapen your show?”
Dr. Oz’s rather limp reply was that he “uses flowery language to engage viewers.” He said “I do personally believe in the items I talk about on the show. I passionately study them.”
Follow the Money
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, American consumers spend $2.4 billion a year on weight-loss supplements.
The competition to get a slice of this lucrative industry is fierce and an endorsement from Dr. Oz is golden. CBS News says that “Oz’s advice is so influential that one mention of a product can cause sales to skyrocket. A phenomenon that even has its own name – the Dr. Oz Effect.”
In 2011, Forbes reported that after a saline nasal irrigation product called Neti pot was mentioned “on the show, its sales rose by 12,000%.”
The doctor says he has no financial interest in any of the products he boosts, but he makes a lot of money out of them indirectly by increasing the size of the audience for his The Dr. Oz Show.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is a wealthy man; only he knows how wealthy. He is said to be paid $2 million a year for his television appearances. Guesses as to his net worth all say $14 million, which suggests someone made the first estimate and everybody has since copied it.
Of course, everybody wants a magic pill that will “burn fat without spending every waking moment exercising and dieting” to quote Dr. Oz. But, it doesn’t exist.
The best advice comes from food writer Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, etc.). It doesn’t cost anything, it works, and doesn’t involve corporate hucksters and snake-oil sellers.
Mr. Pollan says simply “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
According to The Journal of American Medicine, more than a third of Americans (34.9% or 78.6 million) have gone beyond being overweight to being obese.
A team of researchers at the University of Alberta says that more than half of Dr. Oz’s claims are not supported by medical research or are flat out contradicted by scientific studies.
“Do These Dr. Oz-Approved Weight-Loss Supplements Really Work?” Tara Fowler, People, June 20, 2014.
“Dr. Oz Selling ‘Fairy Dust’ Says Medical Ethicist.” CBC News, June 20, 2014.
Science Based Medicine.
“Congressional Hearing Investigates Dr. Oz ‘Miracle’ Weight Loss Claims.” Jen Christensen and Jacque Wilson, CNN, June 19, 2014.
“The Oz Effect: Medicine or Marketing?” Alice G. Walton, Forbes, June 6, 2011.
“Dr. Oz’s Miraculous Medical Advice.” Julia Belluz and Steven J. Hoffman, Slate, January 1, 2013.
“Televised Medical Talk Shows - What they Recommend and the Evidence to Support their Recommendations: a Prospective Observational Study.” Dr. Christina Korownyk et al, British Medical Journal, November 19, 2014.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor