Raspberry Ketone, Pure Green Coffee Extract, Garcinia Cambogia, Weight Loss, and the Fallacy of Appealing to Authority

raspberriesMy usually skeptical husband forwarded me an email message late last week with the subject “weight loss.” It contained a short video of Dr. Oz endorsing pure green coffee bean extract as a miracle weight loss potion.  My husband’s question to me:  “what do you think?”

The clip I watched showed an enthusiastic Dr. Oz with the creator of the product.  Oz declared it a weight loss miracle.  When I went back to the link a few days later, the link led me to something different. This time, Dr. Oz was interviewing someone about a different weight loss miracle:  Garcinia Cambogia.  Apparently it’s also an amazing fat burner! Like pure green coffee bean extract, this product is supposed to result in weight loss without any changes to diet or activity.

Neither the green coffee bean extract page or the garcinia cambogia page would let me leave them without not one but two pop-ups asking me if I was sure I wanted to leave that page.

Dr. Oz has also spoken highly of “raspberry ketone.”  Available in pill-form (because you’d have to eat NINETY pounds of raspberries to get the appropriate “dose”), raspberry ketone is no less than “a fat-burner in a bottle,” according to Dr. Oz.

His website states that “research has shown that raspberry ketone can help in your weight-loss efforts, especially when paired with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet of healthy and whole foods.”  I love the addendum “especially when paired with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet…”

I think I will stick to the regular exercise and healthy whole foods and save myself the $180 for a 90-day supply.

Most reviews of these products that I’ve read have questioned the research.  A Globe and Mailarticle notes that the study on which the main claims about green coffee bean extract were based involved very few participants. Moreover, participants also lost weight during the placebo phase of the trial.

A Canadian Livingarticle on raspberry ketone notes that so far mice have been the only research subjects. Both articles quoted credible MDs claiming that, surprise, surprise: There are no magic solutions!

From the Globe and Mail: “Usually when studies break the physical laws of the universe, there’s usually something wrong with the study itself,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, who writes Weighty Matters, a popular blog on nutrition issues.

I haven’t linked to Dr. Oz’s website and I am not going to say a lot more about these products. Both his site and the products are easy to find on the internet.

What I do want to say is this: there is a well-known fallacy that we learn about in philosophy called “the appeal to authority.”  Appealing to authority is not a good strategy for those seeking truth claims. Just because some authority like Dr. Oz said it’s true doesn’t mean it’s true. Of course we do not need to dismiss the claims of experts. Good science is based on sound studies that have undergone peer review and are based on approved methodologies and ample evidence.

Unfortunately, Dr. Oz is not an expert in most of what he goes on about. And yet he is accepted as an authority by countless people. His stamp of approval on some product or health claim is taken as gospel by many people.  It boosts sales the way Oprah’s endorsement of books used to (perhaps still does) have undue influence in the publishing industry.

This is not to say that everything he says is false. It is only to say that just because he said it doesn’t make it true. We need more evidence than that.

But the medical community has long told us that there are no magic pills for weight loss. Dr. Oz’s claims about these miracle weight loss products are just plain irresponsible, given his level of influence.

I’ve heard all sorts of claims about this and that miracle food or product. When I was a teenager, people took caffeine pills to lose weight. As an undergraduate, smoking cigarettes was the thing.  At one time or another, the special powers of cabbage, grapefruit, and bananas took centre stage in the weight loss culture.  Now it’s more likely to be raspberry ketone, pure green coffee bean extract,  or garcinia cambogia.

And I haven’t even touched on fad diets like eating for your blood type (based on totally ungrounded claims), the lemon-cayenne pepper-maple syrup-water detox, or any variant of a low carb/high protein plan (my first diet—circa 1980—was the Scarsdale diet, a high protein low carb plan that people loved because you got to eat “plenty of steak” for dinner).

If healthy and sustainable weight loss is what you are seeking, none of these supplements or plans will work. They are not sustainable ways of eating for the rest of your life.  And like the claim about raspberry ketone, pair anything with regular exercise and healthy eating and you’re good to go.

No magic and no surprises. As Globe and Mail reporter Carly Weeks says in her evaluation of raspberry ketone, the bottom line hasn’t much changed: “While the promise of the synthetic compound sounds alluring, the best way of losing weight hasn’t changed: It’s still diet and exercise.”

I would only add that “diet” shouldn’t be taken to mean “diets,” those restricted eating plans designed to lose weight. Diets don’t work.  In this context we should understand “diet” to mean simply the way we eat on a regular basis.  We talk a lot on our blog about why weight loss alone is not a great measure of fitness and why we’re not big fans of dieting. Also here and here.

Just to reiterate:  “Dr. Oz said it” is not a reason on which you can base a strong conclusion. In philosophy we call that an appeal to authority, and it’s a fallacy.

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