Supplements, the long war: An interview with Paul Crane (Part 2)

We’ll now continue our interview with Paul Crane, the founder of UltimateFatBurner, a popular website devoted to science-based supplement reviews.

See the first part of our interview here.

BM: What kind of response, if any, have you gotten from the manufacturers of dietary supplements?

PC: Most supplement manufacturers, I think, recognize that free speech allows us to share our opinions without recourse, and even if they don’t, are smart enough to know about the “Streisand effect” — that in the course of trying to suppress something they don’t like, they inadvertently draw much more attention to themselves and their products than had they just left well enough alone.

Having said that, we’ve received more than our share of “cease and desist” notifications over the years. We always deal with these exactly the same way — post the document live on our web site, draw attention to it on social media channels and our newsletter list and so on.

In other words, draw as much public attention to it as possible. This public shaming is usually enough to make them go away, but not always. Sometimes our lawyer has to respond with an equally nasty letter of his own.

BM: What do you think doctors should be doing to help patients access evidence-based nutrition information? What should doctors do differently in order to more effectively promote healthy lifestyles?

PC: Personally, I’m a big believer in “physician, heal thyself.” Lifestyle advice coming from a healthy and athletic-looking physician is going to be a lot more convincing than the same from someone who looks just as flabby and out-of-shape as his/her patients. It will also help if the doctor can point his/her patients to reliable, accessible sources of information, instead of turning the discussion into “my word vs. Dr. Oz’s” and leaving them to their own devices. Also, show some respect for their desire for agency instead of treating them dismissively.

Above and beyond, I’d also advise docs to “know your enemy.” Doctors should watch Dr. Oz’s show every now and again so that they can speak knowledgeably about the pros and cons with their patients. Not everything Dr. Oz says is wrong, after all, and knowing what those things are, and encouraging patients to follow that advice and stressing that it’s more important than chasing after miracle supplements will be more effective than implying that they’re stupid for watching Dr. Oz at all.

Lastly, I’d caution doctors to examine their own biases before speaking to patients. All too often, they behave as if — unless a substance is absolutely proven to be safe — it must therefore be regarded as dangerous and avoided at all costs. I’ve certainly encountered docs who are reflexively anti-supplement, and, as a consequence, come off a lot like “abstinence-only” sex educators. Being skeptical isn’t the same as being oppositional.

It’s tough to rely simply on offering generic common sense advice, which is what many GP’s do. Dr. Oz is a doctor himself — and one who has a much higher professional status than your average GP. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when your average GP attempts to explain — within the schedule-mandated time constraints of an office visit — why s/he is right and Dr. Oz is wrong. When it comes to the “argument from authority,” Dr. Oz is going to win every time unless the GP really has exemplary rhetorical skills…and a better grasp of the facts than Dr. Oz does.

BM: Can you comment on the design and marketing of your site? It seems to me that you’ve adopted the style and approach of supplement sellers. For example, your website name doesn’t exactly scream “objective, science-based reviews”. Yet when you read the articles they are balanced and evidence-based, which of course isn’t like most supplement sellers. What made you take this design approach and how has it worked out for you?

PC: If you want to present information on the web in a way that people will actually consume it, it has to be easy to read, scan and digest. And it has to be “non-intimidating.” The people who sell supplements are actually really good at presenting information in this manner, and they have to be, since they are paying for their traffic. Accordingly, they are good people to learn from when it comes to designing a site of this kind. The “faux” review sites (sites that claim to be reviewing supplements when in actuality their only mandate is to sell products) are particularly good at making their material easily accessible.

For the most part, our design has worked OK, but we’re in the process of reworking the site yet again to make it even more “digestible.” People have incredibly short attention spans, and not everyone wants to spend 5 or 10 minutes getting educated reading material that might be considered “boring.” They just want to know: Should I buy it or not?

In some ways, we’ve fallen a bit short in this regard because we want people to be educated. But the web is passive, and you can’t make people do what they don’t want to do. In other words, we have to do a better job of catering to the “instant gratification” crowd.


If you have your own experiences fighting the medical mis-information spread through the media, please share them with Doctors In Oz at stories@doctorsinoz.com.

February 7, 2015 | Benjamin Mazer