31 May 2009


Ignore Oprah's health advice, please

Like most TV shows, The Oprah Winfrey Show is entertaining as its first goal. And like most men, I've rarely enjoyed it much—because it's not aimed at me. That's fine.

But when she discusses health topics, Oprah can be dangerous (here's a single-page version of that long article). You have to infer from her show that on matters of health and medical science, Ms. Winfrey herself doesn't think critically, taking quackery just as seriously as, or more seriously than, anything with real evidence behind it. For every segment from Dr. Oz about eating better and getting more exercise, there seem to be several features on snake oil and magical remedies.

Vaccines supposedly causing autism, strange hormone therapy, offbeat cosmetic surgery, odious mystical crap like The Secret—she endorses them all. Yet even when the ones she tries herself don't seem to work for her, she doesn't backtrack or correct herself. And, almost pathologically, she remains obsessed with her weight despite all her other accomplishments.

Obviously, anyone who's taking their health advice solely from Oprah Winfrey, or any other entertainment personality, is making a mistake. However, I'd go further than that. Sure, watch Oprah for the personal life stories, the freakish tales, her homey demeanor, the cool-stuff giveaways if you want. But if she's dispensing health advice, ignore what she has to say. The evidence indicates to me that, while she may occasionally be onto something good, chances are she's promoting something ineffective or hazardous instead. Taking her advice is not worth the risk.

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I've always wondered why do so many people have so much faith in Oprah's opinions. What has she done to test any of the empirical evidence surrounding the health claims of the people she endorses?
It's not about that. Her great achievement is making herself into Everywoman, even though as a multi-billionaire media mogul who isn't married and has no children, she falls outside the demographic of pretty much all the women in her audience.

She should verify and go with evidence, but her TV show in particular is about emotional resonance and personal stories, regardless of whether what she's discussing is typical or exceptional, well-supported by evidence or not. Which is what makes her health advice dangerous.
Hear, hear! As a health scientist, I constantly find myself arguing with people who've taken health advice from Oprah or some other celebrity - or random emails that circulate around from one person who uncritically accepts it as fast to another. And for some reason, people seem more apt to agree with an email written by a fictious person telling them that X causes such-and-such disease than they are to believe me when I'm citing actual scientific evidence!
she makes me completely insane!!!!!! thanks for the links because i have been wanting to write this exact type of thing for EVER!!!!! but i was too busy watching oprah...
You're bang on, Derek. It's more about the self promotion and hype. It reminds me of the cable 24 hours news channels. Often the presentation is not so much about the product or the integrity of the accuracy of the statements/presentation but it's about getting the news out and making sure that people watch it. It's unfortunate and dangerous. I'm sure the Oprah's lawyers have it all covered.
Very often people ask me at work about products they've heard about and if they should try it and 9 times out of 10, it isn't what they need and will more than often result in injury.