by Julia Sementelli
With the beginning of the new year inevitably comes an onslaught of promotions and advertisements for miracle diets, detoxes, and supplements that vow to help you shed pounds, live longer, etc. And when you think of diets and supplements, most likely two words come to mind: “Dr. Oz.” He is a doctor, but he is also a registered dietitian’s worst nightmare. While dietitians are out there teaching patients and clients that weight loss cannot be healthfully achieved in a pill or in a 2 week “cleanse,” Dr. Oz is preaching the opposite. Read on for the inside scoop of how Dr. Oz further complicates the already messy, ever-changing world of nutrition and health, including an interview with the man himself.
A recent client of mine, Mark (name changed for privacy), eats a fairly healthy diet: Greek yogurt and berries for breakfast, a salad with lean protein for lunch, and something from the Whole Foods salad bar for dinner (he doesn’t like to cook). He says that his major downfalls are cookies and beer. Mark’s goal is to lose 30 pounds and improve his overall health given his family history of heart disease. “Give me a meal plan and I will follow it,” says Mark. I can work with that. He is actually a dietitian’s dream—someone who already doesn’t mind eating well and is motivated to lose weight. I thought his meal plan would be a breeze, until he said “Oh—I should tell you about my supplements.” I had expected a multivitamin and some daily vitamin D, but my hopes were dashed as Mark rattled off more than 15 supplements that he is currently taking, only one of them being a multivitamin. Among these supplements were resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grape skins that he claims sheds years off of your life, and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which apparently melts body fat. When I asked Mark where he learned about all of these supplements, he said “Dr. Oz.”
No two words can send angry chills up a dietitian’s spine quicker than Dr. Oz. While I am a fairly green registered dietitian, I have interacted with enough patients to see firsthand the power of Dr. Oz. Dr. Mehmet Oz started out as the resident expert on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for five years before he was given his own spotlight, “The Dr. Oz Show.” He holds three degrees: a B.S. in biology from Harvard and an M.D. and M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is vice-chairman of the department of surgery at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He is also likeable. Consequently, he has become one of the most trusted doctors in the world and yet he uses words like “magical” and “miraculous” to promote supplements that promise to burn fat or prevent cancer. However, what the public may not understand is that a pill is not a miracle cure for anything. According to Stephanie Clarke, registered dietitian and co-owner of C&J Nutrition in New York City: “Most MDs get very little (or zero) nutrition education and background—so it’s a frustrating when they dole out nutrition advice or research without enough details or without thinking about how their messages will be interpreted by the public and related to real life eating.” But Americans continue to believe in the power of nutritional supplements recommended by a doctor that (most likely) has had minimal nutrition education and, more surprisingly, continue to buy them. In fact, Americans spent more than $21 billion on vitamins and herbal supplements in 2015. According to analyses, just the mention of a product on the Dr. Oz Show causes a surge in sales.
This phenomenon has been coined as “The Dr. Oz Effect.” Combine charismatic with a few letters after his name and you have someone who is more believable than the thousands of nutrition professionals that use science, not pseudoscience, to back up their recommendations. Even my own father, who has type 2 diabetes, an affinity for soy sauce (read: sodium), and meets my attempts to improve his diet with stubbornness, listens to Dr. Oz. Meanwhile, I have gone through four years of undergraduate education in nutrition, applying for competitive dietetic internships (50% acceptance rate), a one year unpaid dietetic internship, studying for and passing a comprehensive exam, and an additional two years of graduate work to get to where I am. And yet I still don’t have the influence that Dr. Oz does to change my father’s food behaviors.
As a dietitian, I strongly believe in balance. It is my goal to reduce the all-or-nothing thinking that surrounds eating and exercise. The media and people like Dr. Oz perpetuate this mindset, capitalizing on the public’s obsession with weight loss and diets by highlighting drastic regimens and alleged cure-all supplements. Diets do not work because they typically deprive a person of entire food groups, fats or carbohydrates, for example, and eventually the individual gives in and eats those food groups in excess since they have been denying themselves of them for so long.
The demonization of food, another spawn of the media, is the belief that particular foods are good or bad. It has resulted in mass confusion and further damage to peoples’ relationship with food. One of the most infuriating examples of this demonization is fruit. Yes, fruit. “I heard that the sugar in fruit is bad for you” or “I was told not to eat pineapple because it is high in sugar” are actual quotes that I have heard from clients. And not surprisingly, both clients attributed their beliefs to Dr. Oz. After some research, I discovered that, lo and behold, Dr. Oz did a segment titled “Can the Sugar in Fruit Make You Fat?” that most likely influenced these beliefs. Aside from vegetables, fruit is one of the most wholesome food groups, packed with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Yet fruit cannot even avoid falling victim to the war on food. Conundrums like this exist for nearly every food: eggs, fish, coffee, potatoes…the list goes on. The only way to try to reverse the damage is to tell people that no food is off limits and remind them that there is no replacement for good eating and regular exercise. The only way that I have seen weight loss occur is with gradual and sustainable changes over time. And anyone that promises anything different is lying or worse, using pseudoscience to make outrageous claims.
Pseudoscience, the basis upon which Dr. Oz has constructed his lucrative empire, involves exaggerated and often contradictory claims that are not supported by reputable research. The media is also a culprit of using pseudoscience, composing articles and news stories from press releases of studies with small sample sizes or that use mice as their subjects. Just because it is effective or safe for mice, does not mean it will be safe for humans. Many writers for tabloids and mainstream magazines are stretched for time and are more concerned with quantity rather than quality given that their main goal is to make headlines that sell papers and magazines. Unfortunately, such writers and apparent health experts like Dr. Oz produce the majority of what the general public sees and uses to shape its food choices. However, according to a study published in the BMJ in 2014: “Consumers should be skeptical about any recommendations provided on television medical talk shows, as details are limited and only a third to one half of recommendations are based on believable or somewhat believable evidence.” That’s right—more than half of what Dr. Oz claims on his show regarding nutrition is not based on science. While the show has seen a dip in ratings, currently 1.8 million still tune into the Dr. Oz Show and are consequently exposed to information that is incorrect 50-67% of the time according to the 2014 study in the BMJ.
Dr. Oz has been criticized by a slew of medical professionals for his scam marketing, most notably in 2015 when ten physicians wrote a letter to the dean of health sciences at Columbia University requesting that Dr. Oz be removed as a faculty member due to his “egregious lack of integrity” on his TV show. Dr. Oz defends what he tells the public by claiming that “it’s not a medical show,” despite the fact that the show is titled The Dr. Oz show. Dr. Oz says that freedom of speech gives him the right to say what he wants to. But it is difficult to respect this freedom when he is a faculty member at a prestigious university that makes false claims on TV.
I reached out to the Dr. Oz team and received a response from Oz himself. When asked where he finds his nutrition information he said, “We obtain nutrition information from a wide variety of sources. We rely heavily on literature published in scientific journals as well as textbooks. In addition we consult a wide variety of experts including medical doctors and nutritionists. Our research staff is made up of myself a physician trained in preventive medicine as well as 3 medical students who take a year off to work with us. We evaluate all of the content on our show to ensure that viewers are getting accurate information. One of our researchers this year has a master’s degree in nutrition as well.” I am not sure which scientific journals Dr. Oz and his team are using, but when I researched “curcumin” and “oil of oregano,” two of the supplements that Dr. Oz has promoted on his show and that Mark, my client, is currently taking, the conclusion was that “the existing scientific evidence is insufficient to recommend their safe use.” In our interview, Dr. Oz said: “We also reach out to the Friedman school when we have difficult questions. I spent a day up at the school this summer meeting with a number of your faculty. Most recently I have spoken to an expert about fiber fortified foods and to your Dean about the current opinions on dietary fats.” He included a note that says that he and his team welcome interns to join them every month from September to June and students from Friedman are welcome to apply. *Insert eye roll*
When I asked about Dr. Oz and his team’s stance on nutritional supplements, he replied: “In general we believe that many have a place in people’s life to enhance nutrition. We always love to see more and better studies conducted on the utility of supplements in promoting health.” This is a nice response but when I begrudgingly watched a clip from the Dr. Oz show in which he says that Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) can help to burn body fat, even without diet and exercise, I realized that what he says and what he does do not match. And aside from empty promises and putting people at risk with questionable pills, he is encouraging people to waste their money. This is what I told Mark in an effort curb his daily supplement cocktail. If the risk of taking his favorite “fat-melting” supplement won’t stop him, maybe the opportunity to save money will.
Dr. Oz is frustrating for many reasons, but for nutrition professionals it is the fact he uses his credentials as a physician to get away with promoting pseudoscience. Being a dietitian no longer involves simply telling people what to eat. It is trying to untangle the web of misinformation surrounding nutrition that clients have woven over the course of their lives and re-teach them what a healthy relationship with food should look like. While turning to supplements can seem like an easy fix, science shows that eating a diet based on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, is the ideal diet. Science does not show that a pill is the secret to losing those last five pounds that keep hanging on. If scientists really found a cure for obesity, we would not be hearing about it at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. And unfortunately, the supplement industry is not going anywhere. The FDA and FTC regulate the supplement industry, but not very well. So it is up to trained and licensed nutritional professionals (i.e. registered dietitians) to educate the public about the dangers of supplements and listening to people who are simply “health experts.”
Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change student and Boston-based registered dietitian who works in a local hospital and also counsels private clients. You can find her on Instagram (@julia.the.rd.eats- Follow her!) where she strives to intercept confusing nutrition messages from self-proclaimed health experts with expert nutrition advice and tips (as well as some beautiful food photos if she does say so herself!).