Shari Lieberman Dead at 51

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Shari Lieberman, who died on July 2009, was one of the first modern-day dietitians to be solidly aligned with the health-food industry. Her death at age 51 was attributed to metastatic breast cancer. This article is based mainly on my observations during the late 1980s and early 1990s when I followed her activities closely.

In 1986, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) censured Lieberman for failing to adhere to two of its standards of responsibility. In 1987, I asked the ADA to determine whether she was still violating the standards. No formal investigation took place, however, because Lieberman resigned her ADA membership after being notified of the complaint. In 1989, new charges were filed, based on advice in her question-and-answer column in the magazine Better Nutrition and Today's Living. In 1994, following a lengthy appeals process, the ADA suspended her Registered Dietitian credential for a period of three years for violating Principle 7 of its Code of Ethics, which requires dietetic practice to be "based on scientific principles and current information." Lieberman struck back, however, and sued the ADA for defamation in a messy case that ended with an out-of-court settlement. The terms of the settlement were confidential, but I believe that that they were mostly favorable to her. The settlement occurred a few weeks before she was able to renew her R.D. credential. But she did not do so and, as far as I know, never mentioned it again in her biographical sketches. Largely as a result of the lawsuit, the ADA does little or nothing to try to to stop registered dietitians from promoting or engaging in unscientific practices.

Lieberman held an M.A. degree in clinical nutrition from New York University and acquired a Ph.D. degree in 1993 from The Union Institute, an "alternative" school that is accredited but has questionable academic standards. Her Ph.D. dissertation, "Functional Neuromuscular Stimulation: A Non-Invasive Approach for Objective Evaluation of Muscle Fatigue and Recovery Characteristics," compared the effect of high-carbohydrate and high-fiber drinks on the performance of paralyzed leg muscles in five men whose spinal cord had been injured.

Lieberman was active in the formation of the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) and subsequently served on the board. CBNS was created to offer certification to people who completed accredited programs in nutrition but were not eligible to become registered dietitians or be certified by the American Board of Nutrition. CBNS's eligibility standards are high but less rigorous than those of the American Board of Nutrition.

Lieberman practiced what she called "preventive medicine and progressive nutrition" in New York City. In an interview in the January 1993 issue of Health Foods Business, Lieberman said that she counseled about 30 patients per week and recommended "a base line of supplements for just about everyone." At that time, she also wrote regularly for several magazines, appeared regularly on a show syndicated by the Home Shopping Network, and lectured to health-food retailers on such things as how to legally protect themselves while advising customers. Her seminar at the 1992 NNFA convention covered "how you can actually talk with a customer without being arrested." Her main suggestions were: (a) set up a reference library of books and file folders, with a folder for each product ingredient; (b) sponsor lectures by "progressive" nutritionists and other practitioners; and (c) utilize a book of testimonials from satisfied customers.

In 1987, Lieberman advertised in Whole Life magazine that she used "the most progressive screening tools," which she identified as hair analysis (to assess mineral imbalances and toxic metal accumulation), iridology (the condition of all organs is "mapped" in the iris), saliva testing (saliva is crystallized to determine what herbs an individual needs for the healing process), nutritional blood interpretation (to find "imbalances"), and nutritional kinesiology (muscle-testing to verify "sensitivities and weaknesses"). Then, according to the ad, she recommended "a complete vitamin, mineral, herbal, diet, exercise and cleansing program . . . to allow the body to use its remarkable capacity to heal itself." My 1987 complaint to the ADA challenged these practices and several of the supplement recommendations mentioned in her book, Design Your Own Vitamin and Mineral Program. Her subsequent ads were less detailed.

Lieberman's 1987 book Design Your Own Vitamin and Mineral Program was republished in 1990 in a longer version called The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book. Both editions stated that "you cannot get all the nutrients you need from today's food" and that "the RDAs are the nutritional equivalent of the minimum wage. They are probably good enough to keep you alive, but how good is the quality of that life?" Instead, Lieberman postulated higher "Optimum Daily Allowances (ODAs)" and suggested that "nutrition should be our first line of defense if an illness or condition is not life-threatening." Such ideas have no basis in reality.

Regarding patients in her private practice Lieberman wrote:

They come to me with every variety of problem and needs. Some are specific, such as acne, psoriasis, thinning hair, menstrual problems, blood sugar problems, intestinal disorders, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an inability to sleep, fatigue, depression, or nervousness. These people turn to me as an adjunct or an alternative to the treatment offered by their physician.

Although some of these conditions are diet-related, most are not, and few provide a reason to take supplements. But Lieberman claimed to have found them valuable for dozens of problems, including aging, cataract prevention, kidney stones, depression, asthma, and shingles. Her books suggested that everyone should take supplements—starting with her ODA values and adding more to cope with emotional stress, enhance immunity, prevent cardiovascular disease, prevent cancer, alleviate skin problems, prevent diabetes, and/or prevent osteoporosis. For sinusitis, bronchitis, allergies, asthma, cancer prevention, and several skin problems, she suggested daily dosages of 50,000 to 100,000 IU of vitamin A. This advice was both inappropriate and unsafe. Her sample worksheet suggested that emotional stress was a reason to take 3,000 to 5,000 mg of vitamin C daily, which is ridiculous. Much of her advice appeared to be based on faulty interpretation of research reports.

It was clear to me from her writings that Lieberman did not manage patients in a scientific manner. So when the opportunity arose, I helped plan an undercover investigation to determine precisely what she did. In January 1994, Lieberman was consulted by Zhixin Xu, an associate editor of Nutrition Forum newsletter. Xu said he was concerned about fatigue and thinning hair, but he also said that he might be getting nervous and sometimes lost his appetite. Based on these symptoms, Lieberman said Xu might have a "marginal problem" with his thyroid gland that hair and saliva tests could corroborate. She advised him to take vitamin C and kelp supplements and to begin an aerobic exercise program.

Two months later, Xu returned for his test results. Based on the hair analysis report, he was told that his copper and chromium levels were low, which might cause problems with his cholesterol control, immune response, and blood sugar control. Based on the saliva test (herbal crystallization analysis), Lieberman told Xu there were problems with his circulation, lymphatic/immune system, digestive system, and nervous system. The digestive system, she said, "shows up as a little bit of a problem . . . . related to hair loss. . . . There is something going on hormonally." Lieberman also said that Xu had "the circulation of a 60-year-old man" and that his liver was "a little on overload," although there was "nothing wrong with it." She prescribed a vitamin/mineral supplement, a chelated copper supplement, and two herbal tinctures: PRO (which stands for "prostate reproductive system") and LYM ("for the immune and reproductive systems"). Hair analysis is not a reliable way to determine the body's nutritional state. Herbal crystallization analysis is completely nutty.

In the late 1990s, Lieberman helped to promote a weight-loss scam that attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. She was not charged, but in 1999, the FTC announced that Home Shopping Network (HSN) agreed to settle FTC charges that it aired advertisements for a variety of skin care, weight-loss, and PMS/menopause products containing claims it could not substantiate. The settlement included a $1.1 million civil penalty and an order to refrain from unsubstantiated claims in the future. The FTC complaint included excerpts of broadcasts in which Lieberman in her role as an HSN spokesperson, had interacted with testimonial-givers. In one such segment, Lieberman stated that the Target Fat Loss System "really puts an end to the yo-yo syndrome." In another segment, she plugged Life Way Changes for women who have read about the "negatives" and the side effects of hormone-replacement therapy and want "a safe, natural alternative." In a 1998 biographical sketch, Lieberman stated that she had generated more than $30 million in annual sales for Home Shopping Network's Lifeway brand and infomercial products [5].

During the mid-1990s I acquired a box of Life Way's For Women Only Weight Loss System 5-Day Program, the label of which said that Lieberman had created the product. The components were Appetite Satisfying Wafers, Herbal Balance caplets, AM Activator, PM Formula, and a 32-page instructional booklet in which Lieberman stated: "One of the most rewarding part of being the designer of the FOR WOMEN ONLY 5 DAY PROGRAM is to have the opportunity to hear your testimonials when I'm live on air. . . . It would mean so much to me if you would write me about your success stories." [6] No mention was made of wanting to hear from people who were not successful.

In the ensuing years, Lieberman hosted a radio show (WBAI in New York City); served as a spokesperson and/or consultant for several manufacturers; edited newsletters; wrote more books, formulated more products; appeared on radio and TV talk shows; gave more lectures, and created degree programs at two chiropractic colleges. She also served as president of the President of the American Association for Health Freedom, the goal of which has been to stop government interference with the marketing of dubious health-related products and services.

I met Lieberman in the mid-1990s at a deposition. She was obviously very bright and knew a lot about nutrition, But she had gaping holes in her judgment. .

This article was revised on October 8, 2009.