Dr. Oz’s Miraculous Medical Advice
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 10:08 AM
Throughout the episode, Oz maintained his trademark boyish wonder and excitement as he delivered a message many of us long to hear: A pill could help us “burn fat without spending every waking moment exercising and dieting” and even combat “emotional eating.” Oz peppered his excitement with some caution: “Please, listen carefully,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders and his hands raised defensively in the air, “I don’t sell the stuff. I don’t make any money on this. I’m not going to mention any brands to you, either. I don’t want you conned.”
Oz has acknowledged on air that as soon as he mentions a product, manufacturers clamor to get up websites claiming their brand was endorsed by him. They put his face on pill bottles and placards in health-food stores. They link to his show’s website and columns. His PR man, Tim Sullivan, told us that with every product Oz talks about, “the next morning I wake up to 50 Google alerts from companies saying ‘Oz recommends raspberry ketones.’ ” He says Oz’s legal team prosecutes these unauthorized endorsements “aggressively.”
Still, Oz seems to have a penchant for peddling products. Millions follow his advice through the TV and radio, as well as his books, newspaper columns, and magazine articles. And examples of his pseudoscience abound.
Take a breaking-news segment about green coffee-bean supplements that “can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight.” Oz cited a new study that showed people lost 17 pounds in 22 weeks by doing absolutely nothing but taking this “miracle pill.”
A closer look at the coffee-bean research revealed that it was a tiny trial of only 16 people, with overwhelming methodological limitations. It was supported by the Texas-based company Applied Food Sciences Inc., a manufacturer of green coffee-bean products. Oz didn’t mention the potential conflict of interest, but he did say he was skeptical. To ease his mind, he conducted his own experiment: It involved giving the pills to two audience members for five days and seeing what would happen. Unsurprisingly, both women reported being less hungry, more energetic, and losing two and six pounds, respectively.
There are many reasons why this made-for-TV “study” would not be published in any reputable medical journal or meet the approval of Oz’s peers: The sample size was minuscule. The women were not followed for long enough to know whether the effects of the supplement were real. They were neither randomly selected nor unaware of what they were taking. They also knew they were going to have to announce their weight in public to millions of viewers. That pressure, combined with a strong placebo effect, was the most likely cause of their shape change, if one can call it that at all.
As another example, for Day 6 of his “7-Day Miracle Plan to Boost Your Metabolism,” Oz told viewers “zinc reduces hunger by increasing your level of leptin” and that they might take 12 to 15 mg of the mineral daily. He probably based his claims on a study of mice that raised a possible link between zinc, leptin, and weight loss.
But experiments involving people don’t bear this out. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled trial in humans found that zinc supplements did not cause significant changes in weight, body mass index, body fat percentage, or waist circumference. Nor did leptin increase. One study suggested zinc may even lower leptin levels.
On a Jeopardy-themed episode about the “best flat-belly foods of all time,” Oz shared advice on what to do to get rid of a “muffin top.” He recommended almonds, yogurt, and olives, which he said are “great for keeping your belly flat.” Besides the fact that consuming any of these high-calorie foods in excess will do the opposite of keeping a person slim, there’s also no good evidence for targeted fat loss such as shedding love handles, especially by eating particular foods.
He has recommended fish oil supplements for improved cardiovascular health and vitamin D to stave off colon, prostate, and breast cancers and to slow aging. While some evidence supports the importance of fish and vitamin D in the diet, studies on supplements have not shown protective effects.
Steven J. Hoffman is an assistant professor at McMaster University and the McMaster Health Forum, a Trudeau Scholar, and an instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health.