Snake Oil and Public Broadcasting


First, let me say once again that I love PBS – the Nightly News Hour, Frontline, Nova, and so much more.  Sometimes I even like it’s programming on health and nutrition, whose guest experts are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and increasingly ugly.


Such was the case last night when my local PBS affiliate aired an infomercial, masquerading as sound nutritional guidance, which was called something like Eat Fat to Get Thin.  I’m not making this up — the wording was close to this.  The fundamental message, which is a popular one now on several PBS “nutritional” programs, is that we need to be eating a lot more fat, especially “good fat.” The program was screened in front of a live audience that looked like it firmly embraced the standard American diet (SAD), hence its members were already getting about half of their calories from dietary fat.  And it showed.  But that still isn’t enough!!!


The nutritional “expert” was a family medicine physician who has presumably found that the road to riches lies in writing industry-subsidized books that make outrageous claims about how we should be eating.  For example, he asserted that a recent “study” showed rather remarkable health benefits to people who consume a liter of olive oil per week (no, really, he actually said this – and he’s not Donald Trump!).  For those of you reaching for your calorie counters, that would come to over 8000 calories per week from olive oil alone, which for most of us would be over half of our week’s caloric intake!  Now that should satisfy this PBS expert’s call for increasing our fat consumption!


He offered some good advice along with the ugly.  For example, he asserted that we should avoid eating dairy products.  We can’t argue with that.   But when the speaker turned to how we might remedy our unhealthy under-consumption of dietary fat, he suggested, at least twice during the program, that we eat more “grass-fed butter.”  Okay.  Aside from the wonderfully novel expression “grass-fed butter” (who makes these things up?), the speaker seemed to suffer no conflict with his assertion that we should avoid all dairy products.  I’m guessing – just a guess — that the object being fed grass in the process of producing “grass-fed butter” is a cow.  Which I think would make “grass-fed butter” a diary product.


The speaker for this PBS infomercial, in addition to being a popular author, is the chair of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a group promoting alternative medical therapies that are conspicuously lacking in scientific support.  One prominent critic of functional medicine condemned the opening of FM centers at two universities as an “unfortunate example of pseudoscientific quackery infiltrating medical academia.”  I think he was being kind!


I know that operating finances are difficult for PBS, and that it’s tempting to continue airing pay-to-play infomercials that peddle such nonsense as the need to increase dietary fat intake in a population that is literally doping on dietary fat.  PBS could probably afford to pay someone who is academically qualified to vet programs that claim to offer sound nutritional advice.  As it stands now, more and more of these PBS programs are forums for selling snake oil.