On Ben Goldacre on Gillian McKeith…

02/12/2007

There are times when I feel that Ben Goldacreauthor of the Guardian’s Bad Science columnshould be knighted. His services to the British people are astonishing and crushingly under-rated. Occasionally I have questioned his style and on one particular occasion I’ve thought his sense of the ethical ramifications of a particular line of research was a bit na√Øve, but this is not going to be one of those times. Today he’s written a piece that shows him at his absolute best, taking on bastardised popularised notions of science and nutrition and systematically ripping it to pieces. There are times to celebrate the Guardian and this is one of them.

His target today is Dr. Gillian McKeith who has become rich and celebrated on the back of a series of TV shows and health products focused around demonstrating you are what you eat. Her British TV show involves exploring the symptoms and excrement of chronically and dangerously overweight people with terrible diets and then putting them on diets rich in fish, fruit and vegetables. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Except she’s only sort of a doctor and many of her theories are absolute hogwash. I’m going to quote some of the article below, but really you’d be better served by reading A menace to science yourself. In the meantime, I look forward to ‘Dr’ McKeith’s response to the article and leave you with Ben Goldacre:

McKeith is a menace to the public understanding of science. She seems to misunderstand not nuances, but the most basic aspects of biology – things that a 14-year-old could put her straight on. She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it’s “high in oxygen” and will “oxygenate your blood” – but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It’s dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn’t absorb much oxygen in there, because you don’t have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don’t think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination. Future generations will look back on this phenomenon with astonishment.

She says DNA is an anti-ageing constituent: if you “do not have enough RNA/DNA”, in fact, you “may ultimately age prematurely”. Stress can deplete your DNA, but algae will increase it: and she reckons it’s only present in growing cells. Is my semen growing? Is a virus growing? Is chicken liver pate growing? All of these contain plenty of DNA. She says that “each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full-grown, healthy plant”. Does a banana plant have the same amount of calories as a banana seed? The ridiculousness is endless.

Diet has been studied very extensively, and there are some things that we know with a fair degree of certainty: there is convincing evidence that diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, with natural sources of dietary fibre, avoiding obesity, moderate alcohol, and physical exercise, are protective against things such as cancer and heart disease.

But nutritionists don’t stop there, because they can’t: they have to manufacture complication, to justify the existence of their profession … These new nutritionists have a major commercial problem with evidence. There’s nothing very professional or proprietary about “eat your greens”, so they have had to push things further: but unfortunately for the nutritionists, the technical, confusing, overcomplicated, tinkering interventions that they promote are very frequently not supported by convincing evidence. And that’s not for lack of looking. This is not about the medical hegemony neglecting to address the holistic needs of the people. In many cases, the research has been done, and we know that the more specific claims of nutritionists are actively wrong.

PS. The thing that disturbed me most about the article was Dr McKeith’s apparent behaviour in chilling debate about her theories through legal threats. I’d like to suggest that there’s strength in numbers here. If you think this use of threats to chill legitimate debate about an individual’s theories goes against everything that an academic or scientist stands for, then I’d recommend that you too link to this article. Obviously you should also feel free to point out its flaws, inaccuracies or places where you just don’t agree with it. Such is the freeflow of debate.