Dear Dr. Oz:
I caught the senate hearing earlier this week during which you answered for using “flowery language” to describe a number of weight-loss supplements that do not have (as you admit) the scientific backing for your claims.
I’d like to think that you mean well. You are called “America’s Doctor.” You have huge viewership. Your fans adore you. You’ve effectively been knighted by Oprah. However, I’m worried that all this positive reinforcement may be clouding another part of you that you may not want to pay attention to--the part that is very eager to encourage the conditions in this country that have paved the way for your immense popularity. Because, let’s face it: as long as Americans are terrified of being fat, you’ll be doing pretty well.
I admit I don’t watch your show regularly, but I do see you almost every week in the aisle of the Stop ‘n Shop checkout lane.
“The 4-week Belly Melt!” Announces Prevention Magazine, next to your smiling mug; “Dr Oz’s Rx for Fast & Forever Weight Loss!” Trumpets the cover of First For Women magazine. I have also seen segments of your show in which you promote the supplements in question during your senate hearing: green coffee extract, raspberry ketones, and garcina cambogia. “Miracles,” and “fat busters,” in your words.
You are a brand, and your brand is fast, easy weight loss.
But you do know better. Weight loss is not fast. It is not easy. In fact, unfortunately for most people, it is not likely, at least in the long term (especially in our current food environment, unless things drastically change). In February 2013 you gave the closing keynote presentation at the meeting of the National Governor’s Association. During this speech, you described how hard it is for people to lose weight, especially when they are depending on their own personal responsibility:
“What works? Why can’t we lose weight?” You said. “Conventional diets depend on willpower, people think ‘I’m just going to muscle my way through [this diet]’. . . There are a dozen, redundant systems in the body, that force us to eat. . . How many of you [governors] can hold your breath indefinitely? [no hands raise] You cannot lose weight by trying to lose weight because your biology will beat willpower.”
Well said. Our physiology and psychology have been finely tuned over millennia, to get us to obtain and hang on to energy (i.e. calories, i.e. fat) as much as possible.
You went on to describe how the just-right combinations of salt, sugar and fat, along with well-researched flavors and textures co-opt our biology, and get us to eat more than we need to. These ultimate weapons of the food industry virtually guarantee obesity epidemics in countries where processed, packaged, industrial-level food production is the way of the land. But then, you stopped just short of asking these leaders to do anything that would truly have a significant effect on the health of their constituents.
Because the truth is, what you continually offer are individual, market-based solutions to our very real social and environmental health problems: People need to choose to be healthier. People need to choose to eat less, people need to choose to exercise more, people need to choose to buy the right supplements, people need to choose to watch your show. If provided the proper information, these people will choose the things that are in their best interest, and the market will respond, providing the best possible solutions. But that’s not what happens, is it? You yourself said to the governors of this country: “People don’t change what they do based on what they know. They change what they do based on what they feel.”
Even so, you are making people feel like being fat is the worst thing ever, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there are secret bullets out there, easy solutions to their problems--when the real problem is by and large a food system that is meant not to nourish us, but to make profits for its shareholders. That drive for profits inevitably means ubiquitous, cheap, sugary, salty, fatty foods, backed by billions of dollars in subsidies and marketing meant to shape our eating habits and culture. We don’t stand a chance against that.
Public health leaders across the world are recognizing the need for policy solutions to curb the obesity epidemic by addressing the toxic food environment. I haven’t seen much from the Harvard School of Public Health, the Institute of Medicine, or the World Health Organization about convincing people to go on diets and to buy weight-loss supplements.
We have a market failure and you are still working within the market. In fact, you’re cheering it along, urging viewers to buy product after product that will do nothing to change the underlying roots of the problem. In your senate testimony you said that you’re "acting as a cheerleader for your viewers, to give them hope. But you may as well be cheerleading for a Pee-Wee league facing off against an NFL team, saying “C’mon guys, you can do it!!” when what you should be doing is pointing out that the game is ridiculous, and that those kids are going to get crushed.
Please start talking to your viewers about how confusing our food environment truly is, instead of making them feel bad about their faliure to navigate it. Help them realize that they can demand better, both as consumers and also as voters. You’re in a great position to call off the game.