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Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss products.
Something remarkable happened in Washington DC last week while I was on vacation:
This morning the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on protecting consumers from false or misleading weight loss advertising. Last year Americans spent about $2.4 billion on weight loss products, and according to the Federal Trade Commission, it is the most common source of consumer fraud, with 7.6 million cases in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers were available.
There were quite a few witnesses called to the hearing, but the testimony that really made news was by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the notorious cardiothoracic surgeon turned talk show host. If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor and enjoy the epic humiliation of a cheap confidence man:
Raking Dr. Oz over the coals, Senator Claire McCaskill, Chairwoman of the Consumer Protection panel, who I proudly voted for back in 2006 when I still lived in St. Louis. She’s a tough, moderate Senator, but I hadn’t expected her to be quite so aggressive on a non-political subject that I’m personally passionate about. I should have figured that the woman who bested Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin would have no trouble throttling a shameless charlatan like Oz.
As a result of the long-overdue tongue-lashing, Dr. Oz was completely eviscerated by the inimitable John Oliver on Last Week Tonight (a show that, had I the money, I would throw it away on an HBO subscription just to watch), which I also highly recommend:
This week, Dr. Oz tried to move forward, posting his usual banal twaddle on Twitter, like this:
The hashtag was too good to resist, and Twitter responded in the way only Twitter can:
But Dr. Oz’s testimony itself is worth delving into deeper.
Right out of the gate, McCaskill cited three quotes from Dr. Oz:
- “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. It’s Green Coffee Extract.”
- “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat! It’s Raspberry Ketones.”
- “Garcinia Cambogia: it may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for the bust your body fat for good.”
McCaskill then says, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff, because you know it’s not true! So why, when you have this amazing megaphone, and this amazing ability to communicate, why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”
They’re the kinds of claims we see in ads all the time, yet they rarely get called out in such spectacular fashion. Oz is caught flat-footed by McCaskill’s aggressive questioning and attempts to justify his comments by claiming that in the case of green coffee beans that there was a clinical trial backing him up, saying “There was one large one, one very good quality one, that was done the year we talked about this in 2012.”
McCaskill smacks that shit down, saying, “At the point in time you initially talked about this being a ‘miracle,’ the only study that was out there was the one with 16 people in India that was written up by somebody who was being paid by the company who was producing it.” BOOM!
Oz tries to come back to this by saying that our health opinions have changed over the years. “Should you be on a low-fat diet, a low-carb diet? I spent a good part of my career recommending that folks have a low-fat diet. We’ve come full circle in that argument now and no longer recommend that. Many of us who practice medicine, because we realized it wasn’t working for our patients… In the practice of medicine we evolve by looking at new ideas challenging orthodoxy and evolving them.”
The only problem with this defense is that Dr. Oz acts as though low-carb diets are only the latest evolution of dietary advice, which is bullshit. In fact, the very first diet ever recorded was a low-carb diet, as promoted by a man named William Banting. The low-carb trend became so popular due to his writings that people referred to losing weight through dietary weight loss prescriptions as “banting.” So the fight between low-carb and low-fat isn’t the latest evolution of the orthodoxy: it IS the orthodoxy.
And the reason people keep turning to miracles and magic is that the orthodoxy has failed people for over 150 years, so they seek out “aids” that will give them that extra boost of fat-busting power. With that kind of environment, it’s not surprising that frauds like Oz fill that void with bold promises of the next big thing.
Oz then goes on to cite his own informal “study” of giving supplements and placebos to his audience, and McCaskill backhands that bullshit by pointing out that it does not pass scientific muster. Floundering for a response, Dr. Oz goes completely off the deep end.
“I don’t think this ought to be a referendum on the use of alternative medical therapies,” Oz whines. “Because if that’s the case then listen, I have been criticized for having folks coming on my show and talking about the power of prayer. Now again, as a practitioner, I can’t prove that prayer helps people survive an illness —”
“It’s hard to buy prayer,” McCaskill interjects, scoring laughs from the peanut gallery (although, I have to point out that Martin Luther would disagree).
Oz then goes on to explain that even though the scientific proof isn’t there, he puts his money where his mouth is, saying, “Nevertheless I give my audience the advice I give my family all the time. And I’ve given my family these products, specifically the ones you mentioned, and I’m comfortable with that part.” Yeah, Dr. Oz, and I know people who believe in the power of prayer so vigorously that they’ll let not one, but two of their children die from lack of medical treatment.
Oz explains that the biggest problem is that he used “flowery language” that “provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers” because nobody could see that coming. He then says that the magic bean footage is two years old and that he’s learned his lesson since then.
We did a show, with yacon syrup, which you did not bring up. It’s a South American root that had a big study published on it, I think a very high quality study, where they showed that not only did it help people lose weight, but it more importantly helped their health. It was men and women who were diabetic, done by an academic center down there — it was not funded by industry — and we talked about it. And I used as careful language as I could, and still there were internet scam ads picking one or two supportive words. [emphasis mine]
Here’s the hilarious part: the study Oz references is funded in part by the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, a “root and tuber research-for-development institution” whose mission is to “achieve food security, well-being, and gender equity for poor people in root and tuber farming and food systems in the developing world.” That is indeed a noble mission, but it certainly raises concerns that an organization promoting tuber farming might overstate the benefits of a tuber like yacon that is native to Peru. Per the CIP:
[Ivan Manrique, Curator for the CIP] believes that the next big [Andean Root and Tuber Crop] to make an impact on the global market will be Yacon… Furthermore, in Bolivia, Yacon has been consumed by diabetics for centuries… Peruvian Yacon products (including flour and medicinal products) account for exports worth an estimated USD 1.2 million a year, but Ivan Manrique would like to see this figure climb substantially over the coming years.
The study itself is pretty hilarious because there were three cohorts followed, but the cohort with the greatest amount of yacon syrup reported diarrhea, severe abdominal distention, flatulence and nausea. In fact, the study says, “The subjects considered the flatulence severe and unacceptable and no adaptation in symptoms occurred over time. Therefore, this group was excluded from the present study.” Everybody line up for Dr. Oz’s Magical Yacon Pills! Fart your fat away permanently!
This study points out that “this is the first study that demonstrates the beneficial effects of yacon syrup on human health at an intake level that caused no undesirable side effects” in reference to the smaller dose. But here’s the thing: yacon syrup may be a wonderful solution for diabetics, but Dr. Oz has taken one study funded by a group that promotes yacon for development and has begun pushing it as the next big weight loss supplement. This is the exact same thing that happened with green coffee extract: he promoted it on the basis of a single study that was funded by a group that will benefit directly from his shilling.
Even without all this information, McCaskill is flabbergasted that Oz continues to defend his promotion of supplements. “I’m surprised that you are defending…I mean I’ve tried to really do a lot of research in preparation for this trial, and the scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products that you’ve called miracles.” She again asks him why he would promote these things as a “miracle in a bottle.”
“My job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” Oz says. “And when they don’t think they have hope and when they don’t think they can make it happen, I’m willing to look and I do look everywhere, including alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”
See, the problem is that traditional diet and exercise prescriptions don’t yield the kind of impressive results we’re told to expect. If you adopt a healthy lifestyle and achieve a 5-10% loss of your starting weight, you’re likely to be disappointed. Oz knows this and he wants to “cheerlead” people into believing there are ways to get around that. He’s selling hope in the form of herbal placebos. But as he points out, “I don’t sell it and these are not for long-term use.”
Okay, so you can’t take it in long-term, but he then makes the following claim:
By the way, with green coffee bean extract as an example, it’s one pound per week over the duration of the different trials that have been done… If you could lose a pound a week more than you would have lost, doing the things you should be doing already — you can’t sprinkle it on kielbasa and expect it to work — but if that trial data is what’s mimicked in your life and you get a few pounds off, it jumpstarts you and it gives you confidence to keep going. And then you start to follow the things we talk about every single day… I think it makes sense.
Yes, if you make all kinds of leaps of faith, it makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, though, is taking all these leaps of faith from a single study from 2012, which only tracked subjects for 12 weeks, and then concluding that it will continue to have long-term weight loss benefits once you stop taking the supplement.
It’s been like Christmas for me, watching Dr. Oz squirm after years of reckless, unsubstantiated claims of miracles and magic. It’s not often that bullshit claims about weight loss get called out in such a public fashion. And Oliver nailed it when he said, “Dr. Oz is just a symptom of the problem. The disease is that dietary supplements in the U.S. are shockingly unregulated.” This is certainly a major problem, as supplements are almost entirely unregulated in this country. But the magical thinking that supports the supplement industry is so deeply rooted that even critics of Dr. Oz engage in the exact same practice.
For instance, Melanie Haiken of Forbes lists 10 supplements that Dr. Oz promotes,and points out the fraudulent claims. But then, at the very end of the article, Haiken links to an article she wrote in 2012 titled “7 New Weight Loss Supplements With Top Scientific Ratings.” Ironically, one of the products (mango seed) is on both lists.
Until we get past the widespread promotion of weight loss at any cost, belief in the magical power of supplements will continue.
Thanks to this weight loss blog for the transcript.