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TV not always a healthy channel for advice

Celebrity doctors often are outside their areas of expertise when dispensing opinions on talk shows.

July 14, 2012|By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "The Doctors," with Drs. Lisa Masterson, left, James Sears, Travis Stork and Andrew Ordon, has been criticized.
"The Doctors," with Drs. Lisa Masterson, left, James Sears,… (CBS Television Distribution )

Your family doctor doesn't work with a teleprompter. And there wasn't a live studio audience the last time you put on a hospital gown — thankfully. Television is great for sports, reality shows and reruns of "The Big Bang Theory," but if you're getting your health information from TV, you might not be as well-informed — or as healthy — as you could be.

One problem, says Dr. Steven Woloshin, professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, is that TV doctors who are accomplished in one or more fields — Dr. Mehmet Oz, for example, is a cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor of surgery at Columbia University — end up discussing topics beyond their areas of expertise or certification.

"Just because someone's on TV, just because they're wearing scrubs, doesn't mean they're an expert on nutrition," Woloshin, a specialist in internal medicine, says.

Viewers should look at all television health reports with a healthy dose of skepticism and check with their in-person doctors before making any major changes, Woloshin says. Your doctor may not be famous or TV-handsome, but the doctor in front of you likely knows more about you than the one on the screen.

Here are a few debatable tips that have recently popped up on TV.

Probiotics and digestive enzyme supplements

On an April episode of "The View," Dr. Steven Lamm, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University, sat in front of an array of probiotic and digestive enzyme supplements from Enzymedica Inc. and told the hosts: "I'm guaranteeing you, in three to five years, everyone is going to be on a probiotic, everyone is going to be on a digestive enzyme."

Lamm, who was there to promote his new book, "No Guts, No Glory," claimed that such supplements are crucial to overall gut health. But other experts aren't so sure. "There's no evidence that probiotics improve your health if you take them every day," says Lynne McFarland, a probiotic researcher at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle.

Likewise, enzyme expert Dr. John Williams, professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that "people who have pancreatic disease need to take digestive enzymes, but other people don't."

Lamm didn't mention it on the show, but he is a paid consultant for Ezymedica. (He said in an interview that he doesn't have a financial stake in the actual sale of the company's products.)

The television interview inadvertently highlighted pitfalls of talk show health advice, says Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the media watchdog website and a former professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota.

Schwitzer says Lamm was frequently interrupted by the show's five hosts, giving him few chances to share information. "It's like getting your health information by listening to people talk on the train," he says.

Lamm concedes that the appearance didn't exactly go as planned. "I'm friends withBarbara [Walters] and all of the hosts of 'The View,'" he says. "They go off the script, and they feel very comfortable interrupting me. I have trouble delivering what I want to say."

Coconut oil

On a recent episode of his show, Dr. Oz said that coconut oil is a "super food" that "helps you lose weight." Using a large picture of fake blood as a prop, he went on to demonstrate that the fatty acids in coconut oil dissolve easier than saturated fat found in meats.

The message has definitely reached the public, says Christine Tenekjian, dietitian at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. "Many of my clients say they take coconut oil every day."

"Even if coconut oil has a minimal effect on metabolism, it also has a lot of calories that would more than outweigh the benefits," Tenekjian says. "We have people who come in with all sorts of misconceptions that they heard on TV. They cling to it as gospel."

Apple cider vinegar

During a January appearance on "The Talk," self-described "celebrity nutritionist" Cynthia Pasquella said that apple cider vinegar was "very alkalizing for the body, which promotes weight loss." As Woloshin notes, all vinegars are acidic, which is the opposite of alkaline. Besides, he says, even if you could alkalize your body with your salad dressing, there's no evidence that it would do you any good.

Apple cider vinegar is flavorful and harmless in modest amounts, but Tenekjian notes that there don't seem to be studies to back up the suggestion it can help with weight loss. "I don't know where that comes from," she says.

A spokeswoman said Pasquella was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

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