To your health: Think twice before hopping on latest diet bandwagon

By Leia Kedem/University of Illinois Extension

Dr. Mehmet Oz — talk about a polarizing personality. I get questions all the time about the latest supplements and diets about which he's waxed poetic. Usually, I just roll my eyes at his outrageous claims and explain why they're not worth the time or money. But thanks to recent events, it's no longer business as usual.

Just a few weeks ago, the cardiothoracic surgeon and host of "The Dr. Oz Show" was brought before the Senate's Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance. They questioned him about his role in perpetuating weight-loss quackery and other health scams. It seems a bit harsh, so why are they singling him out?

Oz is in a unique position. Not only does he have the medical training and experience to make him credible, he is also undeniably charismatic. Let's also not forget his entrepreneurial spirit — Oz earned an MBA from the Wharton School. And for years now, the Oprah protege (he started off appearing as a health expert on her show) has had the power to reach millions through TV and other media.

With all of this combined, we now have what's been dubbed the "Dr. Oz Effect." Any recommendation with his name on it sends waves throughout the supplement world. To increase sales, companies selling the kinds of products he endorses have used his name and likeness to imply that he backs their brand.

Oz denies his involvement with specific companies and said he could not be held responsible for their actions. However, he believes his role "is to be a cheerleader for (his) audience" and to give them "hope," admitting that part of that is using "flowery language" when describing such products. And while he doesn't outright lie, I'd say he stretches the truth. A lot.

Green coffee extract, Garcinia cambogia and raspberry ketones have all been hailed as weight-loss miracles (his words, not mine), but the evidence is extremely limited. Most of the studies have been short-term and with small groups of participants. There may have been small positive effects, but are we really talking "revolutionary?"

Oz seems to ignore researchers' statements that there is much more work to be done before drawing any conclusions. Case in point: The few studies on green coffee extract have shown an average weight loss of just 5 pounds — not exactly life-changing.

In the subcommittee panel discussion, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said, "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 would you cheapen your show? ... With power comes a great deal of responsibility."

History professors would also remind us that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Perhaps Oz has abandoned his Hippocratic oath for more clandestine motives, but let's be fair here. It's possible that he, too, has been taken in and really believes what he's saying.

We all want a miracle pill for perfect health and longevity, so I wouldn't fault him for it. But since he's in a position to influence the nation's health, he does have the burden of responsibility, and I'm glad he's getting called out on such a public stage.

So is he the Wizard of "Oz" no more? I doubt it. Sure, his shenanigans may be more subdued, but there will always be plenty of snake oil salesmen out there to suck you in with their promises, and as he puts it, hope.

My hope, though, is that maybe — just maybe — this will cause people to think twice before hopping on the latest and greatest diet bandwagon. It may be boring, but a balanced diet and physical activity are the tried and true method for better health, without all of the smoke and mirrors.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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thinks wrote on July 01, 2014 at 12:07 pm

A good piece, but I would add that Dr. Oz does seem more culpable than the writer suggests in saying, "Perhaps Oz has abandoned his Hippocratic oath for more clandestine motives, but let's be fair here. It's possible that he, too, has been taken in and really believes what he's saying."

On the one hand, Dr. Oz has said in his testimony that he used exaggerated language because it engaged viewers; in other words, it made good televison. He said he does not believe that any of these supplements is a miracle solution to weight loss or has proven long-term effects. On the other hand, he has said that he and his family have personally used the products, found them to boost weight loss from week to week (in other words, in the short term). That certainly doesn't sound like a miracle.

In representing himself as a man with professional, science-based credentials, one would think Dr. Oz has a responsibility to educate his viewers about the actual science behind phenomena he presents on his show. That seems to be the theme of the show when it treats other topics, such as audience membes' questions about skin infections or digestive issues. It's very much pitched as a popular medical education show. Why veer into exaggeration and unsupported personal experience on the subject of supplements, especially when the most prudent message grounded in the research is to eat better and exercise more, get a good night's sleep, and destress? I'm much less inclined to give an individual with an Ivy League education the benefit of the doubt when these facts are marshalled together.