On paper, he seems like a stand up guy - he is highly educated, charismatic, a prolific surgeon, author and TV personality. He also has a tendency to spew misinformation, practice out of his scope, and promote products in unethical ways. And he has made millions doing it. In this episode, we cover all things Dr. Oz.
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Alvord, K. (2022). The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oz. People. https://people.com/politics/dr-oz-timeline-career-highlights-controversies/
Belluz, J. (2015, Jan 26). Government confirms one of Dr. Oz's favored diet pills is a total hoax. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2015/1/26/7916745/green-coffee-bean
Brown, C. (1995, Jul 30). The Experiments of Dr. Oz. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/30/magazine/the-experiments-of-dr-oz.html
Forbes. (2008, Aug 4). Oprah Loves This Doctor. https://www.forbes.com/2008/08/04/oprah-health-doctor-forbeslife-cx_hb_0804oz.html?sh=7d43662d2160
Itkowitz, C. & Bernstein, L. (2022, Oct 3). As TV doctor, Mehmet Oz provided platform for questionable products and views. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/10/03/mehmet-oz-senate-television-show/
O’Neill, M. (2022, Nov 7). Just Some Truly Concerning Things Dr. Oz Has Said About Health and Medicine Over the Years. SELF. https://www.self.com/story/dr-oz-misleading-health-claims
Phillip, A. (2015, Jan 28). How a fake doctor made millions from ‘the Dr. Oz Effect’ and a bogus weight-loss supplement. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/28/how-a-fake-doctor-made-millions-from-the-dr-oz-effect-and-a-bogus-weight-loss-supplement/
Reactions Weekly. (2020). Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine increase risk of death in COVID-19, 1806(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40278-020-79019-x
Schwarcz, J. (2018). What is the difference between organic and inorganic arsenic? McGill University. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/health/what-difference-between-organic-and-inorganic-arsenic
Tikkanen, A. (2022). Mehmet Oz. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/surgery-medicine
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Hi everyone, I’m Becca.
S: & I’m Sarah! And you’re listening to Unsavory.
Today we are doing more of a scandalous biographical story on the man who claims he is “America’s doctor”. On paper he seems like a stand up guy - he is highly educated, a prolific surgeon, author and TV personality. He’s charismatic, engaging and pretty attractive by conventional standards. But he has a tendency to spew misinformation, practice out of his scope, and promote supplements using clickbaity words like “miracle” and “magic”…and he has made millions doing it. Today we’re covering the 411 on Dr. Oz.
Sarah, what do you know about Dr. Oz?
S: Well, I know my grandma used to watch his show and when I told her about what we were covering on today’s episode, she was surprised to hear that he has ever done anything worthy of being on Unsavory! So that just shows how easy it was for someone in his position to influence unsuspecting sweet grandmas…
Anyways, let’s get into it. Are you ready?
S: Let’s do it!
Shout out to my sources for today’s episode which are all listed in the show notes at unsavorypodcast.com. An article by Kyler Alvord called The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oz, various other articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and some studies in an attempt to back up some of Dr. Oz’s claims.
The pathology of Dr. Oz
So Dr. Oz is notorious for going against the grain. In his practice, he has famously incorporated things like reiki (RAY-KEE) and hypnosis; on his show he has discussed super controversial topics from conversion therapy to fat camps, and he’s even dabbled in true crime by doing things like interviewing Casey Anthony’s old roommates.
S: Wow, he was all over the map.
But how did he get here? I like to call this next section “the pathology of Dr. Oz” - because you can really see how a lot of the things in his past likely shaped him into the person he is today. So Mehmet Oz was born June 11, 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents were Turkish immigrants - his father, Mustafa, was a thoracic surgeon and his mother, Suna was a physician and the director of a pharmaceutical company. So from a young age he was already exposed to the world of medicine but also the world of pharma. In 1982, he graduated from Harvard University with a degree in biology, then in 1986 he received his MD degree from the University of Pennsylvania AND an MBA from Wharton. And it’s my understanding that he received these two degrees in the same year. (S: Oh wow) So he’s clearly incredibly determined and hardworking. I also read that he spent time serving in the Turkish army to maintain his citizenship in Turkey, which I found interesting.
S: He’s a real go-getter!
While he was in medical school he met his wife, Lisa Lemole, who is an actress and producer. And together they have four children. Lisa’s father was also a surgeon and apparently part of the team that conducted the first ever successful heart transplant surgery in the US. Her mother was more into alternative medicine, using herbal teas, garlic and oils for her own ailments and also those of her children. She even turned down gallbladder surgery at one point claiming she would fix it through diet. And I always find it sooooo interesting when someone so evidence-based, like a heart surgeon, ends up with someone so into alternative medicine. I know a real life couple like that and I always wonder what their dinner table conversations must be like.
S: I can imagine they have some heated debates!
Anyways, this exposure to alternative medicine practices seemed to really have an impact on Dr. Oz. Following his university education, he conducted his residency at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York in general and cardiothoracic surgery. He then became an attending there and started to incorporate more alternative medicine into his practice - so things like meditation, acupuncture and hypnosis. In 2001, he became the complementary medicine program director and he started teaching at Columbia.
Apparently his roommate in college became the president of the Discovery Channel, where he then offered Dr Oz his own show, which was called Second Opinion. In it they would show actual surgical footage and Dr Oz would narrate about the dangers of things like smoking and having a poor diet. Dr Oz, knowing that he needed to hook people into his show, contacted a mutual friend he shared with Oprah and he got her to appear on the very first episode to talk about obesity and personal weight struggles. The two tv hosts clicked immediately and he soon became the go-to medical expert on her show - appearing over 60 times.
S: It’s all about who you know.
And quick side note, but before Dr Oz even had his first show, his Discovery Channel roommate, Billy Campbell, had apparently followed him around when he was working in the emergency room writing up his experiences for a new show. And Dr Oz claims his experiences later became ER (LOL).
People really loved his engaging and holistic approach to health, so he kept getting TV appearances on things like CNN and Dateline; he had a radio talk show, he contributed to magazines and medical research, he co-wrote the book YOU: The Owner’s Manual and later wrote a few more in the same series. He was a very busy guy. Then in 2009 he landed The Dr. Oz Show - which entailed hour long episodes 5 days a week about different health and wellness topics with a focus on prevention. Have you seen it?
S: I’ve definitely seen clips before and it’s been on at my grandma’s as background TV, but I never actually watched it regularly.
It was airing up until like two weeks ago! They’ve aired over 1,600 episodes, which is just wild. But it also really makes you question what evidence-based content they could possibly be talking about for 1,600 hours. (S: Evidence-based content just isn’t that interesting sometimes lol) The whole show plays more like an infomercial than a medical talk show. But with Oprah’s support and her production company, Harpo Productions, behind him, he quickly builds his audience to about 3 million viewers an episode.
He liked to make viewers uncomfortable by discussing more taboo topics like poo and by showing viewers graphic images, like the inside of his colon. And this is really where Dr Oz gets the bulk of his fame and notoriety - because he’s different, edgy and likes to make health seem easy (S: he is definitely charismatic) - but with the show, he also opens himself up to criticism of practicing pseudoscience and giving a platform to guests with monetary motives.
(Alvord, 2022; Brown, 1995; Forbes, 2008; Tikkanen, 2022)
OK so up until the last minute, you might be thinking “Dr Oz doesn't sound so bad”. But that is all about to change. He has been linked to SEVERAL medical misinformation scandals throughout his career...and we are going to do a deep dive into a few of them. First off, the average episode of The Dr Oz Show has around 12 specific health recommendations in it. Over the course of his entire show - so 1,600 episodes - that’s around 19,000 health recommendations. (S: WAY too many for anyone to realistically follow). Some of the information he shares is evidence-based, but a lot of it is literal fiction that has been disproven through research or advised against by the food industry. (S: Perfect…)
HCG for weight loss
In 2011, he promoted the HCG diet for weight loss. (S: Didn’t someone just message us about this diet?!) And yes, HCG is the pregnancy hormone that’s produced by the placenta. He advised people to take a supplement of it alongside a diet of 500 kcals a day to lose weight. (S:OMG no) The FDA quickly told people to throw out any HCG products used for weight loss and to discontinue the diet immediately. While HCG is a naturally produced hormone in females, there are known risks to males who take it, including blood clots, edema which is fluid build-up and swelling of the breast tissue. (S: Yikes) Of course none of this was mentioned by Dr Oz.
Plus a number of studies have also shown that the hormone does not suppress hunger or promote weight loss as he claimed. Ten months after the episode aired, the FDA issued warnings to seven different companies trying to market HCG supplements, saying that they were breaking the law by reiterating these false claims in their marketing.
Also, I’m sorry but anyone only eating 500 kcal a day will likely experience some weight loss. It won’t be enjoyable, healthy or sustainable, but it will likely happen with or without HCG. Not to mention that HCG is commonly used in combination with fertility drugs to help females conceive. So, had this recommendation taken off, it could have caused a shortage similar to what we are seeing with Ozempic. It’s just so shortsighted and honestly shocking that it was “doctor recommended”.
S: Did Dr. Oz ever apologize or get reprimanded for this recommendation?
(Itkowitz & Bernstein, 2022; O’Neill, 2022)
Arsenic in apple juice
2011 was a great year for misinformation, because it’s also the year that Dr Oz started the arsenic in apple juice scare. And please interrupt me if you’ve heard of any of these because I would love to know what you remember hearing about them.
S: I honestly don’t so far! I knew there was some quakery but these details are all new information.
Basically, Mr. Oz told his audience that apple juice is laden with cancer-causing arsenic. (S: I weirdly would absolutely guzzle a crisp cold apple juice right now) Apparently, before the episode even aired, many food industry professionals, including the FDA and apple juice manufacturers contacted him to warn him his information was inaccurate and that it would be irresponsible to share it without all the facts. He decided to air it anyway causing an unnecessary wave of panic in his viewership.
And of course it’s alarming, when you hear arsenic your mind likely associates it with being the lethal poison you see in spy movies. But that isn’t the full story. Arsenic is all around us - it’s naturally occuring in our soil, where it can get into our water systems and onto anything grown from the ground. This is organic arsenic which is not known to be toxic to humans and has never been linked to cancer. So knowing this, it would almost be impossible for apple juice to be arsenic-free. But that also goes for most produce.
Of course, on his show Dr Oz references the TOTAL amount of arsenic that can be found in a glass of apple juice, and not the amount of inorganic arsenic, which is the stuff linked to cancer that the FDA already heavily monitors in apple juice. Unfortunately, when confronted about it, Dr Oz doubles down instead of retracting his statements, which is something he commonly does. It’s almost like once he decides that something is good or bad for us, regardless of what the evidence says, there’s no way to change his mind. Which is a super dangerous rhetoric.
S: I’m sure you’ll get to this but has his medical license ever been in jeopardy?
(Alvord, 2022; Schwarcz, 2018)
Green coffee beans
In 2012, Dr Oz had a guest on his show who he introduced as a “naturopathic doctor” and “certified nutritionist”. This “doctor”, Lindsey Duncan, was there to talk about a miraculous green coffee bean extract that could lead to 20 lbs of weight lost in 12 weeks without any exercise. Duncan said that the science backed his claims and that everyone in the medical community was talking about it. This diet supplement soon became super popular, which wasn’t uncommon for the products talked about on The Oz Show. There’s even a phenomenon called the “Oz effect” to describe the increase in product demand after being mentioned by Dr Oz.
But there were a few issues. Duncan was NOT a doctor, he was personally selling green coffee supplements without disclosing it…and there was no evidence to suggest that the green coffee bean extract even contributed to weight loss. Duncan was later charged by the Texas attorney general for claiming to be a naturopathic doctor when his degree came from an uncredited/no longer in existence online learning college - a degree that is illegal to use in some states like Texas. THEN the FTC forced him and two of the manufacturers he had stake in to pay $9 million to consumers of his product for making deceptive claims and profiting millions of dollars from these unsubstantiated claims. They were unsubsidized because the evidence that was used to show an association between the green coffee bean extract and weight loss was actually just 1 study with 16 participants that had been funded by a green coffee bean manufacturer. The company that sponsored the 1 study previously settled a lawsuit for $3.5 million for making these false claims.
S: I actually do feel like I vaguely remember googling green coffee beans to see what all the hype was about, and 2012 would have been like peak diet culture interest for me so that adds up.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. He has been involved in SO many scandals - including the one where he told everyone that sleeping with lavender soap can help combat restless leg syndrome (which there is zero evidence for); that sea bass, red onions and endives can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by 75% (which is also lacking in evidence); and claiming that ebola could become airborne at any given moment during ebola epidemic. Just super irresponsible stuff.
(Belluz, 2015; O’Neill, 2022; Phillip, 2015)
One of his more recent scandals, and likely one you’ve heard of involved COVID-19. What’s kind of surprising is that Dr Oz wasn’t initially an anti-vaxer and he himself was vaccinated. But in the first few weeks of the pandemic, when fear was at an all time high and mortality rates were rising, he went on Fox news multiple times to promote hydroxychloroquine (hai-draak-see-klaw-ruh-kween) - a drug used to treat malaria and lupus. You might remember that former president, Trump, also promoted this drug claiming that he took it to prevent COVID.
Unfortunately, this prevention method lacked evidence and was neither safe nor effective in doing what they said it did. But because a doctor and the president of the United States were recommending it, people naturally started buying it. To the point where it created a shortage for those who needed it. Possibly the bigger scandal here is that it was found that Dr Oz had over half a million dollars in stock in the pharmaceutical companies that distribute hydroxychloroquine.
And the biggest scandal and tragedy is that people actually died from this. Possible side effects of hydroxychloroquine are issues with heart rhythm, so people with pre-existing heart conditions are at a higher risk of complications. In April 2020, the FDA reported that deaths had been associated with using the drug for COVID prevention and they later made a statement that there was no evidence supporting that the benefits of taking it outweighed the risks. And to this day, I still don’t think there is evidence to suggest this.
Dr. Oz was also criticized for some COVID comments he made on the Sean Hannity show about sending kids back to school. Here is the quote from the show: "I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us two or three percent in terms of total mortality." So basically he suggested that parents should send their kids back to school because we’ll only lose 2-3% of them… He later apologized saying that he misspoke. But that sounds like a pretty clear and thought-through statement to me. And I think it shows his increasing lack of awareness or empathy for the people he’s speaking to.
(Alvord, 2022; Reactions Weekly, 2020)
Before all the COVID drama, Dr Oz had previously formed somewhat of a bond with Trump, during his presidential campaign. In what many thought was an effort to boost his popularity with female voters, Trump went on TV with Dr Oz, where Oz assessed his physical exam results and asked him some health-related questions. Right after that, he publicly reported that Trump is in good physical condition.
To no one’s surprise, once Trump was elected, Dr Oz became the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition for the Trump administration. (S: Omg… not even his area of expertise, he was a surgeon!!! I’d love to see a dietitian in that role)
Unfortunately, this wasn’t Dr Oz’s only stint with politics. In 2021, he changed his address from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and launched his campaign in Pennsylvania for a US Senate seat. (born in Ohio; lived most of life in NJ). He won the Republican primary, with Trump’s support.
He went on to the general election, where he faced Democratic candidate John Fetterman, who was the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. At one point Fetterman made fun of the fact that Dr. Oz - I think in a YouTube video - kept using the word “crudité” instead of vegetables, which is funny. Especially when you’re trying to talk to the general public. (s: haha fair but I do love romanticizing my life and calling carrot sticks crudite is very fancy!) But in retaliation, Dr. Oz’s campaign stated that had Fetterman eaten more vegetables, maybe he wouldn’t have had his stroke in May 2022. (S: Ouff, how insensitive)
This was not good for his public image - because as a doctor, how can you say that?! And as with all political candidates, people started digging more into his past and found some very unsavory stuff. Allegedly, reports of animal abuse were uncovered from some of the studies that he oversaw at Columbia University. I am not going to get into them because they’re terrible and I had a really hard time reading the claims. But I will say that they included experiments and abuse of dogs. (S: Nooooo)
With that, his stance on abortion and so many other things, he lost the election in November. Deservingly so.
S: Didn’t he say that abortions should be a decision made with your political leaders?
Yes..did you see that Amy Schumer sketch?...
S: Mmm I don’t think so
Anyways, while he had Trump’s support through most of his campaign, his longtime pal Oprah endorsed his component, Fetterman.
(Alvord, 2022; Tikkanen, 2022)
This isn’t the only time his friends and colleagues have openly opposed him and his stance on politics or medicine. Even at the beginning of his career, doctors that he worked with at Colombia had expressed concerns about some of his practices, specifically the energy therapy he was using at the complementary medicine clinic he was the program director for. And he was forced to stop.
Dr. Eric Rose, the surgeon who gave Dr Oz his first job at Columbia hospital, made a statement that D. Oz is a good practitioner but that he doesn’t take into consideration the hierarchy of evidence. He’s really leaned into his role as an entertainer and Dr. Rose said he would no longer send a patient of his to him. Which is totally fair.
In 2014, Dr Oz testified before a Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance for false advertising of weight loss products and claims. Sen. Claire McCaskill at one point stated "The scientific community is almost monolithic against you". But again, he doubled down, showing print-outs of the studies he referenced and claimed that he can’t control what viewers take out of context.
In 2015, a group of Dr Oz’s colleagues from various different institutions called for him to be fired from Columbia University. They stated: "Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops,"..."Worst of all, he has manifested a…lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain." Colombia eventually cut ties with him, but I think it was moreso when he went on his political venture.
A study in the British Medical Journal evaluated his claims and found that about 54% of his recommendations either lacked or contradicted available scientific evidence. That means that only like 46% of what he says can be substantiated by any evidence.
(Alvord, 2022; Tikkanen, 2022)
A nutrition communication issue?
Which is a HUGE issue. Especially when you have established yourself as a medical expert and nutrition expert. I think that the fact that almost half of what he says is true makes him more dangerous. It’s difficult to weed out fact from fiction and if someone were to look up one of his claims, there’s a 50/50 chance that they would find good evidence for that claim. (S: Right, it’s just evidence-based enough to seem credible)
Not to mention the issue of this “Oz Effect”. It had the tendency to draw in more product manufacturers who had the opportunity to gain something from being on his show. The responsibility was really on him and his team to vet the guests appropriately.
Unfortunately, he still maintains his license. Apparently, once you have the license, its pretty tough to lose. It’s usually patient complaints that get you there. And I didn’t see anything in my research of patients making formal complaints against him. I think alot of people still genuinely like him as a 1-on-1 practitioner.
Yeah - he is super charismatic. And I guess when you have to make a new 1h show every DAY, five days a week, for 13 years… you get a little fast and loose with your stories. He clearly went for a click-bait approach to keep his viewers interested, and I have no doubt that it worked. Even thinking about our podcast and we do one 45minute episode every 2 weeks - there is absolutely NO WAY we could do a daily episode and continue to have interesting, engaging content, even if you have a full team behind you. New information just doesn’t come out that quickly.
I will say that Dr. Oz was basically the first TV doctor of his magnitude, and in our schooling as RDs, we did learn about media communication and how to do this safely and ethically, but Dr. Oz was a bit of a trailblazer in this area and probably didn’t have much guidance initially. Although, I think after the first misinformation scandal and FDA warnings, he had all the information he needed to know that this was actually a really serious issue.
Awesome job Becca, thanks for teaching me more about a household name that I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at but not known exactly why!
Thanks for listening!