Wellness Fads, Part I: Dr. Mehmet Oz

Dr. Mehmet Oz is one of the most famous physicians in the U.S.  The son of Turkish immigrants, Oz was born in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1982 he earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard, and in 1986 he obtained both MD and MBA degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, respectively.

Fig. 1.1: Dr. Mehmet Oz.

In 2001 Dr. Oz became a Professor in the Department of Surgery at Columbia University, where his specialty is cardiothoracic surgery.  He currently directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Oz rose to prominence through his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where he answered questions about health and wellness.  Dr. Oz is bright, charismatic, and empathetic.  He gained a great deal of exposure on Oprah Winfrey, and became widely known as a commentator on health issues.  Oz also wrote a number of books on health.  With co-author Michael Roizen, Oz produced six books that became New York Times best-sellers (e.g., You: The Owner’s Manual).

Following his success on Oprah Winfrey, in 2009 he debuted a daily TV program, The Dr. Oz Show.  Oprah’s Harpo Productions company co-produces the show, where Dr. Oz dispenses advice on various medical topics and wellness issues, and where he also interviews celebrities.  Currently The Dr. Oz show airs on the ABC network.

For the past eight years, the Dr. Oz show has won a Daytime Emmy for either Outstanding Talk Show Host or Outstanding Talk Show Informative.  Oz has also won a number of awards and has been recognized as a medical expert.  Time Magazine ranked him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of 2008, and Esquire Magazine (for whom Oz writes a regular column) ranked him in their list of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st CenturyHippocrates Magazine rated him one of their “Doctors of the Year,” and Healthy Living Magazine rated him as one of the “Healers of the Millenium.”

Dr. Oz Contoversies:

Given the tremendous success and influence of Dr. Oz, and the accolades that he has received, what is the nature of the controversy that surrounds him?  In short, Dr. Oz has a fondness for dubious wellness fads, and pseudo-scientific magical thinking.  Oz seems to abandon any pretense of skepticism in pushing these ideas, and his stature as a public figure gives these fads a veneer of respectability that they might not otherwise receive.

Let us review just a few of these controversies:

1) Psychics:

One of Dr. Oz’ programs was titled “How To Avoid Getting Scammed by Fake Psychics.”   You can find a summary of that program here:

Here are some statements from that program: “These days there are tons of fake psychics preying on innocent people’s hopes, dreams, and insecurities. With this phenomenon running rampant, now is the time to put a stop to the scams so that you and your loved ones can avoid being duped. With the help of former New York police officer and psychic crime detective Bob Nygaard and world-renowned medium Kim Russo, you can learn about the red flags to look out for.”

 Well, Dr. Oz is correct about one thing: there are tons of fake psychics out there.  In fact, insofar as we know, all psychics are fake.  To find out more about so-called psychics and the methods they employ, we recommend that you look up James Randi.  Randi is a retired magician and scientific skeptic who is a co-founder of the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry.  As a magician, Randi discusses at length the “cold-reading” techniques used by “psychics” in order to obtain information from their clients.

Fig. 1.2: James Randi.

For several years, the James Randi Educational Foundation sponsored a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.  They offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power under test conditions that were agreed to in advance by both parties.   Guess what?  Randi never paid off, despite testing scores of people who claimed supernatural powers.

There is a straightforward principle we should use to evaluate claims of paranormal powers, and that is: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  People who purport to possess psychic powers, or to communicate with the dead, are claiming the ability to perform feats that are not understood by mainstream science.  Thus, their claims should be subjected to rigorous testing, before one accepts that these abilities are genuine.

To date, all people claiming paranormal powers have either been unmasked as frauds, or have been unable to demonstrate any such abilities, when scrutinized by groups of scientists and magicians under rigorous test conditions.  Until such time as we have irrefutable proof, scientists approach such claims with deep skepticism, and so should you.

This is an area where Dr. Oz is seriously deficient.  Instead of approaching these claims with the skepticism of a scientist, Oz acts more like a cheerleader.  He leverages his credentials as a surgeon with his status as a celebrity, in order to promote quack nostrums and to champion pseudo-scientific charlatans.

We should give Dr. Oz credit for the legitimate contributions he makes to public health.  When he urges his audience to schedule regular colonoscopies, he is providing advice that will save the lives of several of his viewers.  The same thing can be said for much of his medical advice.  For example, he is enthusiastic about the benefits of meditation.  Techniques of relaxation and mindfulness can confer significant health benefits.  However, when he crosses over and endorses “genuine” psychics and mediums, he has crossed over into the world of magic and woo (for example, on his program on ‘avoiding fake psychics,’ Dr. Oz featured “psychic crime detective Bob Nygaard” and “world-renowned medium Kim Russo,” among others).

2) Homeopathy:

On some of his shows, Dr. Oz has shilled for the pseudo-science of homeopathy.   I refer you to our blog post on homeopathy.   Does homeopathy work? Steven Salzberg, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University says: “Homeopathy is the most obviously fake alternative medicine you’re likely to see in your local pharmacy.”

Homeopathy, which was developed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 (before the germ theory of disease was understood), is based on two general principles.  The first is “Like Cures Like.”  For example, if you ingest belladonna it will make you sick (you might get a fever), and in sufficiently large doses it will kill you.  Therefore, supporters of homeopathy claim that small doses of belladonna will cure a fever.  The second principle of homeopathy is “The Law of Infinitesimal Doses.”  This is the notion that as the “curative” substance is diluted, it becomes progressively more effective in combating disease.  The more dilute the active ingredient, the more potent it becomes.

Modern science has shown that both of these “homeopathic principles” are nonsense.  The “active ingredients” in homeopathy are generally poisons that were chosen more or less at random.  Using these poisons as “medicine” could have serious negative consequences, except that in homeopathy the ingredients are diluted to ridiculous levels.   The idea that the “active ingredient” becomes progressively more potent as it is diluted contradicts everything we know about dose and response.

For example, the naturopath Dr. Lisa Samet who appears on the Dr. Oz segment below recommends an “effective dilution level” of 200C.  This means that 1cc of the active ingredient has been diluted with 100cc of water, and this dilution process has then been repeated 200 times.  Now that we understand the atomic theory (which Hahnemann did not), we can demonstrate that any dilution greater than 12C will not contain a single molecule of the “active ingredient.”  Thus, we can guarantee that a “200C mixture” will contain nothing but distilled water!

Here is video of the Dr. Oz segment.  Note that Oz endorses this, saying that “my family has used homeopathic remedies for generations.”  Homeopathy is endorsed as a “gentler alternative” to conventional medicine.  And “Dr.” Samet helps Oz assemble a “homeopathy starter kit” that includes belladonna as the “perfect remedy” for fever, on the basis of the bogus “like cures like principle.”

Dr. Oz is peddling nonsense here. The only positive thing one can say is that homeopathic medications are not likely to harm you, because they contain nothing but very expensive distilled water. The only possible health benefit would occur because of the placebo effect, but then so could distilled water or a sugar tablet, at a vastly lower cost. On the other hand, if one has a genuinely serious medical condition, then forsaking legitimate medicine for a homeopathic “remedy” can be dangerous. I have seen recommendations for “homeopathic vaccines” as an alternative for vaccination. We now understand the mechanism of immunity , and there is no way a homeopathic vaccine can confer immunity to anything.

3) Green Coffee Beans:

Dr. Oz has promoted some extremely dubious health food fads. Three of these are: green coffee beans; raspberry ketone; and garcinia cambogia. We will review the “green coffee bean” fiasco in detail, because it illustrates how Dr. Oz shills for a product, and the effect of his endorsements on sales. Here is a video touting green coffee beans that features Dr. Oz and “Dr.” Lindsey Duncan.

In May 2012, Dr. Oz first hyped green coffee beans as “the magic weight-loss cure for every body type.”   Oz brought Lindsey Duncan onto his show, who was introduced as a “naturopathic doctor.”  Duncan was there to promote these new supplements that he claimed “the medical community, the weight-loss community” was all buzzing about.

According to a Washington Post article, Lindsey Duncan had been contacted in April 2012 via e-mail by producers of Dr. Oz’ TV show.  “We are working on a segment about the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean and I was hoping that Lindsey Duncan might be available to be our expert.  Has he studied green coffee bean at all? Would he be able to talk about how it works?”

As it happened, Duncan knew nothing about this product; but that did not deter him, and his staff responded “Awesome! Thanks for reaching out, Dr. Lindsey does have knowledge of the Green Coffee Bean. He loves it!”   On the Dr. Oz show, Duncan shilled for the product, and directed viewers to search online for “Pure Green Coffee Bean Capsules.”  This would direct them to a company Duncan had formed to sell green coffee beans – a company that he created immediately after his contact with Dr. Oz.

While Oz nodded enthusiastically, Duncan delivered his spiel for the coffee beans.  “It’s the chlorogenic acid that causes the effect, and it works three ways. The first way is it goes in and it causes the body to burn glucose or sugar and burn fat, mainly in the liver. The second way, and the most important way, is it slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream, so when you don’t have sugar building up in the bloodstream you don’t have fat building up because sugar turns to fat.”

The enthusiasm for green coffee beans was based on a paper published by two scientists in a reputable scientific journal, that appeared to show that the participants in a study could lose weight using this extract, without diet or exercise.  However, Duncan’s ”scientific explanation”  was essentially hot air.

The “magic weight loss” endorsement from Dr. Oz set off a nationwide clamor for green coffee beans.  Not only did Duncan make millions from this product, but a number of companies sprung up to market similar products.  Detractors assailed “green coffee beans” as a gimmick.  Alas, they were correct.  Federal regulators later discovered that key data in the published study, including the participants’ weight measurements, appeared to have been altered.  When challenged, the researchers retracted the paper.

In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission filed a legal complaint against the company that sponsored the original study on green coffee bean extract, for false advertising. The FTC described the study as “so hopelessly flawed that no reliable conclusions could be drawn from it.”  Lindsey Duncan also came under fire. The Texas Attorney General charged Duncan with claiming a “degree” from an unaccredited and now-defunct “distance learning” natural health college.  And the FTC fined Duncan $9 million for profiting from his promotion of a bogus health product.

Note that Dr. Oz allowed Lindsey Duncan to promote green coffee beans on his TV show, despite the fact that Duncan owned a company that sold the product and thus had a serious conflict of interest.  This is another drawback to the Dr. Oz Show – it makes no guarantees that its invited guests are free from conflicts of interest.

4) Red Palm Oil:

In 2013, Dr. Oz brought Canadian homeopath Bryce Wylde onto his show, introducing him as a “miracle worker and alternative medicine expert.”  Dr. Wylde was on the show to push red palm oil, which Oz described as follows: “Did you know that palm trees contain an ancient remedy that can slow down the aging process, fight belly fat, and combat heart disease? There’s a secret inside the flesh of this fruit, extending the warranty of nearly every organ in your body. This mega-oil may very well be the most the most miraculous find of 2013.”

Fig. 1.3: Dr. Oz touts red palm oil as “Miracle oil for longevity.”

Here is video of Dr. Oz and Bryce Wylde in their presentation of the “miracle product” red palm oil.  Pay attention not only to the health claims made for this product, but also watch the “demonstrations” of how this product works in your body.

First, they “contrast” the action of red palm oil and “normal” fats in your intestines, by sliding them down tubes containing fat products.  The “normal” fat essentially comes to rest.  Oz and Wylde claim that the fats will then congeal in your digestive system, leaving a combination of fat and toxins in your body.  By contrast, when they add red palm oil to the fatty solution, not only does it speed down the tube, but it brings all the accumulated fats with it.  Thus, Oz and Wylde assert that red palm oil clears out your digestive system, unlike “regular” fats.

Next, in order to “demonstrate” the fat-melting effects of red palm oil, Dr. Oz lights a candle to show how ordinary fats might burn energy.  The notion is that the fats very slowly release energy.  He then sets off a sparkler to “show” how red palm oil magically burns off fat (the sparkler ignites, burns extremely rapidly, and then explodes).   Furthermore, Dr. Oz asserts that red palm oil is effective for burning off stubborn belly fat; in other words, Oz claims that this product will not only reduce your overall weight, but will take off pounds preferentially in specific areas of your body – so-called “spot reduction.”

Wylde likened the effect of palm oil on the brain to putting lemon juice on an apple to delay it rotting.  The tocotrienols in palm oil is actually going to increase blood circulation, it’s going to reduce incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s.”  Wylde and Oz agreed that red palm oil conferred several health benefits, making it “the most miraculous find of 2013.”

Red palm oil is a partly-refined version of palm oil; it is high in Vitamin A and beta-carotene, a source of Vitamin E.  Vitamin E has beneficial anti-oxidant properties; however, it is by no means clear that a healthy individual needs supplements of either of those vitamins.  Regarding the claimed benefits of palm oil in preventing dementia or Alzheimer’s, Scott Gavura [a Canadian pharmacist who maintains a science-based medicine blog] states that “there is no convincing evidence to suggest that consuming red palm oil will have any meaningful effect at preventing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.”

Regarding the claim that palm oil decreases bad cholesterol and reduces the risk of athero-sclerosis, Gavura concludes “there is no convincing data from prospective trials that vitamin E or the carotenoids have any benefit for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”  In 2014 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of medical professionals, stated that “there is not enough evidence to determine whether taking single or paired nutrients or a multivitamin helps to prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer.”   Furthermore, they pointed out that beta-carotene “increases the risk of lung cancer in people who are already at increased risk for the disease.”

Finally, does red palm oil “melt away” belly fat?  Scott Gavura concludes: “Spot reduction [loss of weight in one single area] is a persistent but unfounded dietary myth that can give unrealistic expectations about weight loss and what constitutes a healthy diet …The idea comes from the thought that red palm oil-rich fatty acids are metabolized by the body, and not deposited as fat.”

So there you have it, folks – yet another “medical miracle” touted by Dr. Oz that turns out to be highly dubious.  Scott Gavura summarizes the situation: “If there is an antithesis to the principles of science-based medicine, it’s probably the Dr. Oz show. In this daytime television parallel universe, anecdotes are evidence. There are no incremental advances in knowledge — only medical miracles.”  Is it any wonder that critics compare the Dr. Oz Show to an infomercial, or to the snake-oil salesmen of the 19th century?

5) Doctors Critique Dr. Oz’ Recommendations:

In an analysis published in the British Medical Journal, Canadian researchers watched episodes of The Dr Oz show and The Doctors (another TV program featuring Dr. Oz).  They viewed random episodes from the first five months of 2013.  Of over 900 recommendations made on the two shows, the researchers randomly chose 80 from each program, and searched the medical literature for support for those statements.

The researchers found that only one-third of the recommendations made on The Dr. Oz Show could be supported by medical evidence.   Nearly 40% of the claims made on that show appeared to have no evidence supporting them.  Another 11% of the claims were on issues where legitimate studies existed, but the claims by Dr. Oz ran contrary to the medical literature.

The researchers concluded that “Consumers should be skeptical about any recommendations provided on television medical talk shows.  Viewers need to realize that the recommendations may not be supported by higher evidence or presented with enough balanced information to adequately inform decision making.” 

Now, other scientists who have scrutinized recommendations from Dr. Oz are more charitable about the percentage of claims that either have no supporting evidence, or that contradict legitimate medical studies.  Regardless of what numbers one accepts, the fact remains that viewers receive some sketchy advice from Dr. Oz and his presenters.

In addition to the controversies we have mentioned, Dr. Oz has also interviewed people on his program who support the debunked “vaccines cause autism” myth (for analysis of this, see our blog post on Vaccinations).  For a panel on LBGT issues, Oz invited a representative from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a group that endorses conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality, a technique that has been deplored by the medical community.  In addition, Oz pushes various diet regimens that claim to “detox” your body.  And he also touted a mixture of strawberries and baking soda as a teeth-whitening procedure.  Unfortunately, studies of this technique not only showed no effect on whitening teeth, but strawberries contain high concentrations of citric acid and traces of malic acid, which can degrade teeth.

How does Dr. Oz respond to these criticisms?  He now claims that his show is not actually a program about medicine and health after all – it’s an entertainment program!  To demonstrate this, Oz refers people to the logo for his show, shown below.  He notes that “The Dr.” is included in the border that surrounds “Oz” (an earlier logo had “Dr Oz” inside the border, compare Figs. 1.4 and 1.5).  Oz claims that by placing the word “Dr” on the border, the public will realize that the show is about entertainment and not medical advice.

Fig. 1.4: The current logo for the Dr. Oz daily TV show.
Fig. 1.5: Original logo for the Dr. Oz Show.

Sorry, but I don’t buy this.  Mehmet Oz is trading on his medical credentials.  When he brings guests onto his show to talk about health and wellness, he is clearly presenting these issues in his capacity as a well-known surgeon.  If Oz interviews someone like Ivanka Trump or a supermodel, this could be considered entertainment and not medical advice.  But when he uses his program as a vehicle for guests who claim that vaccines cause autism or who push homeopathy “cures,” he mis-uses his credibility and stature to promote pseudo-scientific New-Age thinking that is probably useless in the best cases, and positively dangerous in other circumstances.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mehmet Oz:
The Dr. Oz Show:
Wikipedia, James Randi
Dr. Oz program: How To Avoid Getting Scammed By Fake Psychics:
Debunking Denial, Homeopathy:
Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2015: How a Fake Doctor Made Millions From ‘the Dr. Oz Effect’ and a Bogus Weight-Loss Supplement.
Scott Gavura, Science-Based Medicine, The Dr. Oz Red Palm Oil (non-) Miracle.
Televised Medical Talk Shows – What They Recommend and the Evidence to Support Their Recommendation: A Prospective Observational Study, BMJ 349, 2014

Continue to Part II