The Hidden Dangers of Supplementation Fads & Promises

supplements by Lauren Silverman

Carole Freeman

This week, we are publishing an opinion post from Carole Freeman, one of our Wholistic Nutrition Program instructors here at The Wellspring School for Healing Arts.

The topic is inspired by the recent controversy around Dr. Oz’s supplement recommendations, and focuses on how supplement fads can negatively impact our clients and our practices.

Interested in learning more about how to use supplements safely and effectively in your professional practice or personal health care routine?

Check out Carole’s weekend workshop Daily Dose I on July 19th & 20th. Like all of our classes, this one focuses on time-tested, scientifically sound practices.

book now

No laughing matter: The Dr. Oz Effect

The television show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” recently poked fun at Dr. Oz for being scrutinized by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Product Safety (1). John Oliver explained the “The Dr. Oz Effect”, the phenomenon where Dr. Oz condones the latest diet miracle pill on his TV show, which results in massive sales of that supplement.

While John Oliver’s TV segment was quite funny, Dr. Oz’s weight loss recommendations are no laughing matter.

A first encounter with Dr. Oz

I’ve actually had the opportunity to meet Dr. Oz. While I was a graduate student, Dr. Oz was given an honorary doctorate in naturopathic medicine from my school, Bastyr University. The day that the ceremony was taking place on campus, I was preparing for a cooking class in the basement.

Unexpectedly, Dr. Oz appeared for a tour of the teaching kitchen lead by our school’s president, both of whom were followed by a crew of cameras. They hit the kitchen like a whirlwind, quickly posing for photos with various vegetables and cheesy grins, stopping only momentarily to shake my hand and ask me a meaningless question. They left the kitchen as quickly as they had entered and I was left with my thoughts about the encounter. It would be years later though, in my private practice, that this man would have a much greater impact on me.

The Dr. Oz Effect in full force

Once I began my private practice as a nutritionist, I quickly noticed The “Dr. Oz Effect” in full force. While I have never seen an episode of the Dr. Oz television show, I always knew just what he’d touted recently. “What do you think about raspberry ketones? Dr. Oz said they can help you lose weight…” or “Do green coffee beans really help you lose weight? Dr. Oz said…” are examples of questions my clients have asked me with longing, desperation in their voice.

Before answering, I would always conduct my due diligence and look up the research on these supplements myself. But each time, the answer to my clients was essentially the same and involved reassuring them that there really was no magic pill.

John Oliver states that the problem with Dr. Oz’s recommendations of miracle pills is that dietary supplements are “shockingly unregulated” in the U.S., but I don’t see that as THE problem with Dr. Oz’s recommendations. Prescription drugs are highly regulated; however, we see ads all the time telling us to ask our doctors about some special medication. The problem would be no different if Dr. Oz recommended a magic prescription pill to cure your weight loss woes.

The real problems with Dr. Oz’s recommendations

Here are the real problems, as I see them, with Dr. Oz’s recommendations for weight loss supplements:

They give you the impression that there are miracle solutions.

He uses the word “miracle” on his TV show, but when questioned by the senate subcommittee, he admits that there is no miracle pill. But can people un-hear his recommendations? People have such a strong desire for there to be a miracle pill that they will try it anyway (as shown by the CBS correspondents that John Oliver shows in his segment) (1).

They perpetuate the myth that there is a simple solution to obesity and overeating.

People continue to hold out hope that they just have to wait long enough for scientists to invent or find the pill that will make them thin. But in reality, obesity and overeating are complex webs of genetic factors; psychological influencers; an abundance of cheap, highly-palatable foods; hormonal influencers that regulate fat storage; and the brain chemistry of addiction. There is no simple solution to this.

They result in people taking a supplement without proper supervision.

Even though supplements are available in every grocery store and from your friend selling the latest and greatest multi-level marketing super detox supplement, they really should only be recommended by qualified healthcare professionals. People need to be properly screened for contraindications and interactions with other drugs and supplements and then carefully monitored.

They ignore the fact that all people are not the same.

If something works for one person that does not mean it will work for another person. We all have arrived at our places in life after a unique set of life circumstances and genetic factors. Dr. Oz’s recommendations assume that a supplement that works for one person will be the “magic weight loss cure for every body type” (Yes, an actual quote from Dr. Oz (1).)

Most importantly, it perpetuates the myth that losing weight is always healthier than not. Dismissing for the moment the plethora of the well-documented health consequences of weight loss (see The Obesity Myth, by Paul Campos and Health at Every Size, by Linda Bacon), let’s just look at the side effects of green coffee bean extract. While some preliminary studies showed that green coffee bean extract helped lab mice lose weight, another study showed that it didn’t. And more importantly, the later study (2) showed that the mice developed the early symptoms of diabetes, one of the very health benefits purported by weight loss. But despite this, people would likely be willing to trade a few pounds for diabetes (or a shorter life) because the truth is that our society values body thinness over health. (3)

Losing weight at all costs?

While I agree that our supplement regulation in the U.S. is not perfect, it is not the primary problem behind Dr. Oz’s recommendations on his television show for magical, miraculous cures for weight loss. Dr. Oz would better serve the health of our nation by recognizing that promising weight loss cures only perpetuates the problem since losing weight at all costs is truly more harmful than helpful or healthful.

References:

(1)Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, http://youtu.be/WA0wKeokWUU
http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/06/14/191540988/sorry-dr-oz-green-coffee-cant-even-slim-down-chubby-mice

(2)The influence of one’s own body weight on implicit and explicit anti-fat bias, Obesity. Schwartz, M., Vartanian, L., Nosek, B., Brownell, K. Accessed June 30, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16648615

Photo by Lauren Silverman.

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