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Santa Brings Coal for Snake Oil Salesmen: FTC and BMJ Call BS on Sensa, The Doctors and Doctor Oz

Call it a holiday gift.  This week I’ve come across TWO scathing reprimands of bogus weight loss profiteering and frankly it fills me with holiday glee.

First, I learned that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have sent refund checks totaling over $26 Million to people who bought the “weight-loss supplement” known as Sensa.  I remember the first time I saw this dubious substance.  A friend of mine smiled gleefully as she sprinkled this “magic powder” on her food.  “It will make me skinny!” she said.  “All I do is sprinkle this on my food and I will eat less and lose weight!”  I frankly could not imagine how this powder, purchased at Target would help her eat less.  Perhaps, I thought, if it made the food taste really bad, you know like that substance you paint on your nails to keep from biting them?

But Sensa advertising suggested another mechanism for their magic powder.  The advertising suggested that Sensa enhanced the taste and smell of the food, thus making eaters enjoy the food more, thus allowing them to feel full faster and stop eating sooner.  And then, they lose weight.

“Huh.  That’s a neat trick,” I thought.

Turns out the FTC thinks my skepticism was warranted.  The FTC complaint states that the manufacturers of Sensa provided no credible scientific evidence for the weight loss claims for Sensa.  In addition, the complaint states that Sensa’s manufacturers failed to disclose that they paid customers to endorse the product and that they doctored up a supposedly independent study.

And speaking of doctors, that leads me to my second early holiday gift.  A study recently released in the British Medical Journal calls out US television shows The Doctors and The Doctor Oz Show for spreading bogus and sometimes downright dangerous health information.  This is yet another crushing blow for Dr. Oz, who actually spent time in front of a Congressional committee explaining why he felt it was okay to tell the American public for instance, that green coffee beans would make them skinny.  He was asked to explain his various Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir-like substances that served as medical miracles that simply melted the fat away.

The British Medical Journal study called out the antics of these modern snake-oil salesmen, suggesting that roughly half of the medical advice offered on The Doctors and The Doctor Oz Show was either not supported by medical science or directly contradicted by prevailing scientific evidence.

The study abstract states:

We could find at least a case study or better evidence to support 54% (95% confidence interval 47% to 62%) of the 160 recommendations (80 from each show). For recommendations in The Dr Oz Show, evidence supported 46%, contradicted 15%, and was not found for 39%. For recommendations in The Doctors, evidence supported 63%, contradicted 14%, and was not found for 24%. Believable or somewhat believable evidence supported 33% of the recommendations on The Dr Oz Show and 53% on The Doctors.

The study also explains that this is significant for US healthcare because “television is one of the most important mass media sources of health information.”  It notes that The Dr. Oz Show with it’s position as one of the top 5 American talk shows has the reach to do a whole lot of good.  Unfortunately, Dr. Oz frequently peddles bogus weight loss cures and consistently fails to provide any information regarding conflict of interest.  So, yeah.  Snake oil salesmen are having a rough week.

To be clear, the thing I’m taking out of this as my holiday gift is not that the Snake Oil Salesmen–Purveyors of Powders and Magic Beans exist or that they are so very good at their jobs.  I am simply doing a little holiday dance of glee on the multimillion dollar payout and credible medical journal smackdown these guys are receiving right now.  Just a little coal in their holiday stockings. Ho. Ho. HO!

Love,

Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)

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Skinny Scientists and Pseudoscience and the New Scientific Method

This week was kind of a bad news good news week for the science of fatties.  On the good news front, Dr. Oz got a very public spanking in Congress for continually touting snake oil “miracle cures” for weight loss.  Claire McCaskill, Chairman of the Senate’s consumer protection panel, brought Dr. Oz to task for presenting a variety of supplements, potions and cures as effective methods of weight loss without having any,  you know, science to back it up.  When grilled by McCaskill, Dr. Oz admitted that some of the “miracle” weight loss cures (like green coffee beans) do not pass scientific muster to be presented as fact.  But he insists that he has studied them himself and recommended them to his own family.  He says he recommends stuff to his audience that he would give his own family.  Which is cool, except he is not described on TV as “Papa Oz” or “Uncle Oz”.  He’s touted on TV as “Dr. Oz”.  And TV watching people are gullible.  If a TV doctor tells them that green coffee supplements will make them miraculously thin, many people believe it is so.  And they think that if a doctor recommends something, there’s a little more scientific proof that it works than “my cousin tried this and it was awesome”.

The fact that Dr. Oz underwent this very public spanking is in some ways very encouraging.  It is in line with many other efforts by the FTC to bring “miracle weight loss” companies to task for making a whole lot of money from lying to people about the effectiveness of their products.  But if Dr. Oz behaves in a way remotely similar to these other weight loss companies (including Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers) we should be prepared for some “bobbin’ and weavin'” in the boxing ring.  After huge fines were levied by the FTC, Weight Watchers and many other competitors have started to put a tiny asterisk after weight loss claims and the teeny-tiny mousetype on the bottom of their ads says “results not typical”.  Which is a start.  But let’s face it.  When you have three glorious examples of anecdata with startling before and after pictures, that little asterisk has to work pretty darn hard.  The FTC said as much in “Gut Check” their new spotters guide to weight loss fraud.  Dr.  Oz will have to begin including his own “asterisk” regarding his “miracle” weight loss cures.  But the guy has his own TV show.  He has writers and editors that are extremely talented.  I have no doubt that he will find a way to appear to follow the letter of the law regarding truth and weight loss, while leaving the spirit of the law firmly behind.

And in this same week, I came across this piece by budding scientist Rachel Fox.  In the piece she describes why she has decided she can no longer pursue a career in science.  She has been told in no uncertain terms that she cannot be a scientist because she is fat.  And being a scientist and being fat just don’t mix.  In the piece, Fox describes the discrimination, both subtle and overt she has experienced as a budding scientist.  At one job interview for an exciting student researcher position at  a prestigious lab, Fox was told that the work was “collaborative” and that the lab didn’t want anybody on board who “was going to eat more than their fair share of the pizza”.  Fox describes other incidents where fellow researchers are appalled that she doesn’t seem to understand the “calories in, calories out” rules of nutrition.  And as we’ve seen with Dr. Terrible earlier this year, scientists and academics seem think they are free to draw whatever conclusions they like about fat and self-discipline because you know, science.

It’s important to understand that science is subject to prejudice and politics just like any other field.  Scientists expressed beliefs about the flatness of the earth and geocentric nature of the universe long past the sell by date of these notions  not because they had evidence, but rather because it was politically prudent to do so.  Modern scientists may not find themselves in an actual dungeon.  But I’m sure many other scientists like Ms. Fox can attest to the notion that doing science while fat can lead to “The Inquisition”.

So, as much as I wish I could jump up and down with glee over Dr. Oz’s trip to the Congressional Woodshed for “making stuff up” to give us fatties “some hope”, I am simply saying let’s wait and see.  When you’ve got a guy with an audience with millions of adoring fans, his own TV show, his own writers, editors, makeup people, lawyers and PR firms, we can expect a whole lot of fancy dancing, and very little scientific fact.  In fact, make it up and make it look good on TV might just be the 21st century scientific method.

 

Love,

Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)

I’m Back! (With a New Video)

Maybe we all need to do a little more dancing...

Maybe we all need to do a little more dancing…

Okay kids, I’m a little bit tardy (2 days) but I am back with a renewed desire to offer you juicy blogging goodness.  And I’m back with a brand new video showing just a little bit of what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.

On September 18, we held our second annual Hot Flash Mob in Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  The weather was GLORIOUS!  Our initial turnout was small, but after some rapid recruiting among those enjoying the fabulous San Francisco sunshine we got a crowd together and did our dance…

This crowd was a great mix!  There were men and women.  There were older people, younger people and in-betweenies.  There were thin people and fat people and people with amazing hair and even a cameo from one of San Francisco’s street population.  We all had a wonderful time.

And all of this makes me more determined THAN EVER to get groups of people together and get them dancing.  Because dancing is sort of like a magic catalyst.  It crosses line of age, shape, gender, class, language, economic status and more.  And even if you can’t do the moves just like I do, we can all find and share the beat together and boogie down.

It this time of serious strife and division, where I almost can’t bear to look at the news and hear the latest details about the complete breakdown of civility and communications, I think it is more important than ever to just dance.

Maybe that’s what we need to do.  Just get all the politicians in the world together to dance:

Then again, maybe not…

Love,

Jeanette

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