New Year's resolutions: Is your TV doctor giving you the best advice on losing weight?

Alex Proimos via Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

It’s that time of year when many of us are hungry for advice on how to shed those extra pounds gained during the holiday. And a few clicks of a TV remote or keyboard is bound to turn up a plethora of recommendations: some good, some not so good.

Take for instance those offered by "The Dr. Oz Show."

The highly rated daytime TV program, distributed by Sony Pictures Television Distribution, features Dr. Mehmet Oz. Not only is Oz a telegenic host, he's also a cardiac surgeon and professor at Columbia University’s Department of Surgery.

But despite those credentials, Oz has been criticized for his routine use of such words as “radical breakthroughs,” “cures” and even “miracles” when describing weight loss diets, medical news and anti-aging products he regularly features on his show.

Critics — from scientists to U.S. senators who questioned him last summer — have complained that many of these claims have little to no science to back them up.

And a study published this month in the British Medical Journal is adding fuel to those concerns.

Conducted by a team of doctors and pharmacists, the study suggests that scientific evidence either contradicted or was absent for 54 percent of the health recommendations on Oz’s show and for 39 percent of those dispensed on the daytime CBS hit, “The Doctors.”

"TV shows like, 'The Doctors' and 'The Doctor Oz (Show)' have quite a significant following and they’re quite persuasive," says Joseph Perrone, chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science,  a non-profit group that challenges unsubstantiated medical and health claims found on everywhere from internet blogs and to mainstream media. 

Perrone is among those who credit both “The Dr. Oz Show”  and “The Doctors” with helping to educate mainstream America about important public health issues.

But he says he’s concerned about the potential negative effects unfounded health recommendations found on both shows may have on consumers.

"They could certainly give a lot of false hopes to people and kinda steer them in the wrong direction," he says.

And worse, he fears, they could prove harmful to some viewers.

Take for instance herbal remedies and vitamins. Both are frequently discussed on these TV shows and on the Internet and both are easily obtained in health food stores. And while they may seem innocuous enough,  taken in too large amounts, they can be toxic.

"Some vitamins can build up and be rather problematic in your liver and kidneys," Perrone says. 

But because herbal remedies and vitamins fall outside federal regulations, many experts fear that consumers may assume they’re all safe.

"These products that are hyped, whether its on an infomercial, reality show or talk show, they don’t necessarily go through the same level of testing and rigorous controls that drug or medical devices have to prove in order to get on the market," says Charles Ornstein. He's a reporter who investigates and writes about health issues for ProPublica, a New York-based non-profit news organization.

Ornstein and others in the field say consumers can best protect themselves by greeting such claims with a healthy dose of skepticism — especially those that promote quick fixes.  Doing some research before buying in to their promises is always a good idea, he says. 

Next, find out if the person giving advice — whether a TV doc, a writer of a blog or even your own doctor — has anything to gain financially from suggesting you take certain pills, drinks or medications.

To check out financial ties between doctors and some pharmaceutical companies, consumers can log onto Propublica’s “Dollars for Docs”  website.

"Dollars for Docs is our effort to keep track of the money the pharmaceutical industry is spending on their interactions with physicians," Ornstein says. "Anybody can go into Dollars for Docs and plug in a name for a doctor to see if a doctor has received payments from one of the 17 companies in our data base."

And beginning next year, Ornstein says, a federal government requirement for public disclosure of such information means the site will expand to include every pharmaceutical and medical device company in the nation.

But probably the easiest and quickest way to protect yourself against sketchy health advice: always run any new fangled diets, vitamins regimens or herbal remedies by your own doctor, who knows your health better than anyone on TV.