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TV's Dr. Phil Throws His Weight Around

Posted - Feb. 23, 2004 at 6:20 a.m.



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When it comes to weight loss, straight-shooting Dr. Phil McGraw rips the bandage right off. If you're fat, says the popular television talk show host, it's your own darn fault.

Fortunately, Dr. Phil says, there's something you can do: Watch his TV program, read his book and buy the bars, shakes and supplements with his gung-ho image on the package.

America's most visible pop psychologist is now dispensing weight-loss advice, a career move that has caused a national buzz. Although celebrity product endorsement is as old as the American dream, critics say Dr. Phil is capitalizing on his trusted television persona and venturing into an area where he lacks credentials.

Even Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil's mentor, has said that endorsing supplements was not necessarily a decision she would have made.

"A personal endorsement is one thing," said Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "But if he's trained in marriage counseling, he's claiming something not really in his area of expertise."

As a psychologist, Dr. Phil has said, he has treated weight-loss issues for decades. Last October Dr. Phil teamed up with CSA Nutraceuticals and now his towering 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound figure can be seen on Shape Up! products. All of his endorsement income will go to the newly formed non-profit Dr. Phil Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting childhood obesity.

Although there is nothing profound or new about his ideas, the book addresses emotional eating and behavioral change. Dr. Phil advocates "right thinking," or eliminating self-defeating thought patterns, "healing feelings" to prevent emotional overeating and building a good support system.

But Dr. Phil is a trained psychologist, not a medical doctor. His endorsement of both meal replacements and supplements, which are largely unregulated by the federal government, doesn't sit well with some.

Even the licensing industry is debating the issue. "It gives new meaning to the words `working it.' " Mary Sullivan of San Francisco-based Cedco Publishing wrote in the Licensing Letter. "If he was a medical doctor (who) specialized in nutrition, I could see it as a natural crossover. But a shrink? It smells of ethical and moral concerns."

Meal-replacement products, such as shakes and bars, have long been controversial parts of a weight-loss plan. Although some dietitians say they can be a safe device, others say they can become an unhealthy crutch.

"We are all looking for a quick fix," said Dawn Jackson, a registered dietitian at the Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "The question is whether this is preying on the vulnerability of people trying to lose weight. We all know there is no quick fix or magic pill, and this could give them false hopes."

Dr. Phil recommends eating "real" food first, and taking his meal-replacement bars with a piece of fruit when access to healthy food is limited. His bars have an average number of calories and more fiber and protein than similar products on the market, Jackson said. The trade-off is that they are so high in saturated fat, the artery-clogging fat, that she likely wouldn't recommend them.

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(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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