Dean Spills the Beans: Interview with
Dean Edell, M.D., author of Eat, Drink & Be Merry!
© Joan Price. May not be reprinted without permission.
Dean Edell, M.D., is America's favorite doctor. 20 million listeners get their medical information from this feisty, iconoclastic radio-syndicated superdoc. He's an insistent "show me the science!" information-gatherer who spends hours a day immersed in medical journals. He's also a sixties rebel who dropped out of his surgical practice to live in a bus and make jewelry.
Edell's first book, Eat, Drink & Be Merry (HarperCollins, 1999), is one of the only health books that tells readers to listen up, get the facts, stop obsessing, and enjoy life, for goodness sake. It's full of medical facts that you can spout to amaze your friends, provocative concepts that will shake you into questioning some of your best-loved opinions, and, of course, Edell's personal story.
I met with "Dr. Dean" in the well-used office of his northern California hilltop home to learn the inside scoop on how he went from rowdy kid to med student to dropout to America's best-known doctor.
JP: What were you like as a child growing up?
DE: I was a hellion, a horrible kid. I had F's with red circles around them for all the personality characteristics that they used to grade you on in grammar school. I guess I was hyperactive. I got in a lot of trouble as a kid.
JP: You've said on your radio program that you would have been put on Ritalin if it had been as available when you were growing up as it is now.
DE: Oh boy. That's one of the reasons I'm skeptical about the number of kids on it. I made hyperactive decisions, like drop out of surgical practice and winding up doing radio. These are crazy decisions--surgeons just don't do this kind of thing. I think that living a creative life is very important. Your life is a work of art. So many people get in a rut and a fear cycle and are afraid to do the things they dream of. Before they know it, life has passed them by. Part of health and wellbeing is pursuing these kinds of things.
The world would be a duller place without all us hyperactive people. Hyperactive people are more likely to own their own businesses and be more independent. A lot of great artists, musicians and writers were hyperactive. So I would just say to parents to consider carefully before they drug their kids into being like all the other kids.
JP: What were your dreams and goals when you went to medical school? Did you ever think when you started medical school that you'd end up America's favorite media doc?
DE: I couldn't think of anything farther down on the list than that! I really didn't like medical school. I started school as an architect. I went to mechanical and aeronautical engineering. Then I went to fine arts and art history.
Towards the end of college, I had a job as an orderly and had a pivotal experience seeing an autopsy. My curiosity was intense--I wanted to know what this body of ours looked like inside! But that passion was a fleeting thing. It got beat out of me in medical school. I quit a couple of times to go to architecture school, which was one of my original loves, but I didn't have the guts and I let the family talk me out of it. So I plowed on through medical school. I chose to do my post graduate work in eye surgery in California in 1967.
JP: Readers of your book are going to enjoy learning about how you went from a surgeon to a hippie dropout. Give us that story in a nutshell.
DE: I didn't like medicine, I didn't like the pressure, and I wasn't sure what I was doing there. Here was the sixties happening! What a glorious time! I don't know if the twentieth century has seen anything like that. I look at the health movements, the environmental movements of today and that's where it all began. The Oriental philosophy, the diets, holistic health, environmental movement, equal rights for everybody--all these things blossomed in the sixties. It was a very special time, good and bad. I couldn't resist it.
I just walked out of my surgical practice. I got up one day and said, I can't stand this any more. I just finished a decade and a half of hell on wheels with no breaks, and was bursting at the seams. I figured I'd take six months off, have some fun and travel around. I bought a bus, I grew my hair, and put my family in this little one-bedroom apartment I built in this bus, and we took off. We traveled around in the bus, I taught preschool, had an antique store, was an antique auctioneer, did jewelry, got back to my art things, had a custom jewelry store, built a house myself, did the whole number! Six months became a year, and then two years.
JP: I would think you'd have fallen into alternative medicine because of your lifestyle at that time.
DE: I did. I was very interested in alternative medicine. I come from the beginning, where we debated whether to spell it "wholistic" or "holistic." I read all the books, all the wild and wacky stuff. I quickly saw what was happening: It was hit and miss, there was no evidence. I saw people with real disease getting their "vibes checked" and succumbing to their disease. I realized quickly that the information base wasn't there, as wishful as I was about wanting all that to be real.
That's what it was: the wish and the romance. It was the hippie thing to prove those cold, calculating scientists and doctors and the white tower wrong. That appealed to me, I've always been rebellious. But as hard as I tried, there wasn't anything to sink my teeth into. It was all guesswork. So I went off on my own path.
JP: How did you go from hippiedom to radio?
DE: I had a custom jewelry and antique shop, and I was doing the starving artist routine. I took a job doing physicals in a drunk tank for 50 bucks a day and met a guy who said, "Hey, you explain things really well." He had a friend at a country music radio station in Sacramento. She broke format, took a country music station and stuck a doctor on at 11:30 at night after a Jesus program! I took a whack at it. Then KGO (San Francisco) decided to try me out on Sunday afternoons. That was about 20 years ago, and now I'm on about 350 radio stations and 80 television stations.
JP: You say early in your book that the "media machine" generates most of the ideas we've picked up about how our bodies work and how to make them work better. Explain what you mean, and what's wrong with the health information we learn from the media daily.
DE: The health information we learn from the media daily is not really coming from health experts. We expect a meteorologist to give us the weather, and a jock to give us the sports. But somehow we accept health news from people who don't really understand the perspectives. Almost all the health news comes from one of two sources--the wire sources. And the wire sources feed off of only a couple of medical journals--there are 4,000 of them out there! People, because it's not put in perspective, react to each one of them.
People should never change their lifestyles based on one story or one media report. We've created a very anxious population. We're all neurotic and fearful about our health. We spend too much time obsessing about it, as opposed to enjoying the short time we have. Life is a terminal disease--ultimately it comes down to that moment when your heart stops beating. There are hundreds of factors that go into that moment, from your genetics to unknown physiological factors, to environmental factors of the moment. You just can't control it.
We as Americans think we can control everything--the media leads us to believe that! Don't eat this, and you'll eat forever. We love those stories! We soak them up. We love to jump on trends. And we get burned.
JP: In your book, you challenge some of people's most precious convictions. What topics do you think will antagonize the most people?
DE: I think because these health movements have become cult-like, people believe in them like religions and get really, really angry when you challenge that. I think I will be an equal-opportunity offender. People who absolutely love their fanatical bean-sprout, low-fat, macrobiotic diets will get mad at my chapter on that. People who are addicted to exercise may get mad at my chapter on that. I think the alternative medicine set will be the most offended.
I would simply say, if you're ticked off by my book, ask yourself why. I would throw back at you the "P" word: Show me the proof! That's all. I'll change my mind. I'll put out a Dr. Dean Edell herb or vitamin in a second. I've no objection to making money selling people a product that they can use. I just want people to keep an open mind!
Excerpts from Eat, Drink & Be Merry
Favorite weight-loss scam: "Slim Skins ... were a pair of tight-fitting pants similar to the kind worn by bicyclists today. On one side there was a fitting that attached to your vacuum cleaner ... Just hook up, turn on your vacuum, and--slurp--away with the fat. This prompted one of the great letters from a radio fan. 'Doc,' she wrote. 'The instructions didn't tell me: how do I get the fat out of my vacuum?'"
Diet gurus: "Ten years ago, the immune system captured everyone's imagination and--voila--Dr. Berger's Immune Power Diet, where fat was nothing more than the response of a hyperactive immune system to food. That one really frustrated me. True believers saw me as a typical doctor feeling threatened by the breakthrough of a great genius. The talk show hosts gushed. Dr. Berger died shortly after, at age forty. He weighed 365 pounds."
Dr. Edell's diet plan: "Eat whatever you damned want, but eat less ... Call it the Dr. Dean Shut-Your-Mouth diet."
Hippie roots of alternative medicine: "The antiauthority rebel in me is proud to have participated in a movement that rocked the world. The classically trained doctor in me is ashamed of what much of it has become ... Just because something is alternative doesn't mean it should escape the scrutiny of science."
Natural vitamins: "Even when something says 'natural' on the label, it's often not. Natural vitamin C from rosehips? A 500-milligram vitamin C pill, made entirely from natural rosehips, would be the size of your head. The pill you buy is actually just ascorbic acid, made in a lab, with a dusting of rosehips."
Tobacco: "'Tobacco is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs,' declared King James I of England in 1604, way ahead of the California state legislature."