Dr. Oz Loves His Snake Oil

There was a time when I wanted to like Dr. Oz. Sometimes when I was flipping through the channels I’d come across him giving solid, down-to-earth advice. But these days I’m more likely to see him peddling some new “nutritional supplement” as a miracle fat-burning cure.

Julia Belluz and Steven J. Hoffman have a long article at Slate looking at some of Dr. Oz’s recent claims, Dr. Oz’s Miraculous Medical Advice, which pretty much confirms my suspicions:

In Dr. Oz’s New York City studio, garcinia extract—or hydroxycitric acid found in fruits like purple mangosteen—sounded fantastic, a promising new tool for the battle against flab. Outside the Oprah-ordained doctor’s sensational world of amazing new diets, there’s no real debate about whether garcinia works: The best evidence is unequivocally against it.

The miracle cure isn’t really a miracle at all. It’s not even new. Garcinia cambogia has been studied as a weight-loss aid for more than 15 years. A 1998 randomized controlled trial looked at the effects of garcinia as a potential “antiobesity agent” in 135 people. The conclusion: The pills were no better than placebo for weight and fat loss.

Oz’s standards for evidence seem to be pitifully low, yet his smooth, approachable show doesn’t let on about the confusing numbers behind his confidence:

To support the awesome assertions about the flab-fighter Garcinia cambogia, the doctor created on his TV show an atmosphere of accessible scientific certainty. He brought out researchers and physicians in white coats who discussed what they said was compelling evidence for the weight-loss panacea. There was an inspiring testimonial from a member of the audience. Plastic models even demonstrated how garcinia could suppress appetite and stop fat from being made. The show had the same easy manner as Oprah discussing Leo Tolstoy with her book club.

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.”

I’m sure he doesn’t, but millions will go out to buy Garcinia anyway. I’m not sure what his angle is; Steve Novella suggests that the rush to push every new supplement is partially driven by the need to fill time and put out shows. Regardless, it sometimes seems that there is no medical fad that he won’t jump on.

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