Dr. Ben Goldacre on Ms. Gillian McKeith

Dr Ben Goldacre takes down Dr Ms. Gillian McKeith in this excellent Guardian article. For a start, he’s managed to get his dead cat the same non-accredited qualification she uses to call herself ‘doctor’. But it’s more than squabbling over her credentials: her ‘nutritional’ advice is bogus and outright harmful to the cause of medicine:

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. Channel 4, let’s not forget, branded her very strongly, from the start, as a “clinical nutritionist”. She was Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, appearing on television every week, interpreting blood tests, and examining patients who had earlier had irrigation equipment stuck right up into their rectums. She was “Dr McKeith”, “the diet doctor”, giving diagnoses, talking knowledgeably about treatment, with complex scientific terminology, and all the authority her white coat and laboratory setting could muster.

So back to the science. 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.

Her legal team is fierce (“If you said I wasn’t a doctor, I wouldn’t sue you; I’d roar with laughter.” says Dr. Goldacre), her sources and references dubious to say the least, and the way she treats people on her programmes deeply unpleasant. If the message were just ‘eat healthily’ nobody would have a problem, but her advice, it seems, goes beyond this into pseudoscience and causes deep confusion.

But let’s look at the evidence. 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. And what an extraordinary new profession it is. They’ve appeared out of nowhere, with a strong new-age bent, but dressing themselves up in the cloak of scientific authority. Because there is, of course, a genuine body of research about nutrition and health, to which these new “nutritionists” are spectacularly unreliable witnesses. You don’t get sober professors from the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit on telly talking about the evidence on food and health; you get the media nutritionists. It’s like the difference between astrology and astronomy.

I’m increasingly viewing the word ‘nutrition’ as a red flag – my skepticism level increases dramatically whenever it turns up.