“Too often celebrity gurus lure consumers into wasting their money and pinning their hopes on pseudoscientific concoctions that are at best useless, and at worst dangerous.”-Paul Fidalgo
Last week, TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz appeared before a Senate investigatory committee to defend his claims that certain dietary supplements could cause “miracle” weight loss. Lawmakers called for the hearings as a result of a series of actions by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against fraudulent action in the nutritional supplement industry. Dr. Oz, one of the most trusted faces on American television, received the dressing down of his life, as senators used the opportunity to challenge his claims and increase their own visibility. While it was embarrassing for Dr. Oz, the hearings also pointed out the futility of the quick fix mentality that most Americans have toward diet and exercise. Perhaps the highlight was an accusation by Center for Inquiry spokesman, Paul Fidalgo, that Dr. Oz was “peddling snake oil” to consumers on his popular daytime talk show. It was extremely embarrassing for Dr. Oz, America’s High Priest of Health. One has to wonder if he can ever get his credibility back.
The nutritional supplement industry is one of America’s largest and most lucrative. Sales reached $11.5 billion in 2012, and are expected to to reach almost $16 billion by 2015. These are just total sales. The the profit margin generated by the industry is astronomical, as manufacturers are not required to identify much of what is actually in their products, and are not required to substantiate claims made about the efficacy of their products.FTC testimony stated, “The endless flood of unfounded claims being made in the weight loss industry vividly illustrates the challenges that we, and consumers, are up against.”
The industry also benefits from something that has become known as the “Dr. Oz Effect,” where sales skyrocket after receiving a televised endorsement by Dr. Oz. Key players in the supplement industry know that if they can get a celebrity endorsement, the American consumer is more likely to believe that the product works. This increases sales immediately, and the placebo effect (see “Really? The Power of Placebo, “June 23, 2014) convinces enough gullible consumers to become repeat customers.
While Dr. Oz may have deserved the public beating he received, he should not become the whipping boy for what is a far larger problem. The reality is that consumers need to take responsibility for what they purchase and use. It is difficult, if not impossible, to protect consumers from their own gullibility. Americans have been susceptible to this kind of marketing forever. Dr. Oz and the food supplement industry are merely the 21st century version of Dr. Love’s Traveling Salvation and Medicine Show. Certain segments of people who exercise tend to fall prey to these kinds of claims. People who are extremely overweight probably have a tendency towards being lazy. Miracle weight loss products that promise to “melt off pounds while you sleep,” are likely to be things that they are going to try. Teenage boys, hoping to build those 20 inch biceps by next summer, are more likely to try that miracle potion that the latest Mr. Olympia is selling on the back of the magazine, as the industry preys on his optimism and impatience. Such marketing has been going on for decades and certainly did not begin with Dr. Oz and his cheesy, infomercial style.
Some players in the medical community have also jumped on the bandwagon and the line between legitimate, holistic medicine, and placebos has become blurred. Consumers, and their physicians, are looking for less costly alternatives to prescription medications, and enlightened doctors are prescribing appropriate nutritional supplements for their patients with positive effects. It is a rare PCP that does not suggest omega-3 fish oil, or vitamin D3, to their patients over age 40. Others are open to the idea that nutritional supplements can help with joint health, eye care, bone strength, and many other specific conditions. Appropriate use nutritional supplements can play a critical role in your personal wellness program. If you are training for fitness, sport, or strength, then supplements can be beneficial. Just don’t overdo it. A good protein powder, fish oil supplements, and a balanced diet where you consuming enough calories through healthy, natural foods, can allow you to attain your goals.
The defrocking of High Priest Dr. Oz should not be an indictment on the entire nutritional supplement industry. There are a lot of good outcomes from the appropriate use of nutritional supplementation. Beware of terms like “proprietary blend,” celebrity endorsements, outlandish claims, and advertisements that are just too over the top. Realize that nothing will replace hard work, self-discipline, and time. Remember that health and wellness is not a destination, but a lifelong process that hopefully, you can learn to enjoy.
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