You aren’t what you eat

Dr Gillian McKeith's diet, as seen on TV, is pure quackery.

Rob Lyons

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The new kid on the block of reality TV is You Are What You Eat, a kind of Life Swap for fat people in which ‘Britain’s top nutritionist’, Dr Gillian McKeith, persuades inveterate slobs to turn their lives around by trying her diet.

This is a knockabout TV show in which Fatty (or Mr and Mrs Fatty and the Fatty kids) are shamed about what they eat. ‘Don’t they know anything?’ we’re invited to scream as the Fatty kids are fed tomato ketchup sandwiches and takeaway food. We watch through our fingers as another convenience meal is nuked in the microwave, another can of fizzy pop is guzzled, another packet of crisps scoffed.

Then the good doctor breaks them like a horse whisperer of the obese. Last week it was the turn of Carl and Michelle Hobday. ‘How can you feed this slop to your children…it’s food abuse?’ McKeith tells Michelle, who promptly starts to sob. This week she accused Nikki of not loving her husband Dean – how could she when her cooking habits would drive him to an early grave? (1)

Beaten into submission by such moral blackmail, the subjects then proceed with the diet. McKeith prods them in the liver and examines their tongues to tell them all sorts of worrying things about their inner health. Then she sends them for colonic treatments and makes them exercise.

The results look impressive, with substantial weight loss and patterns of eating that certainly seem a lot healthier. But given what we are told about the subjects’ starting condition – very obese, taking no exercise, monotonous sugary/fatty diets – it would be a miracle if they didn’t lose weight and look better.

In search of this miraculous cure, I bought the book of the series. I’m not alone, since it sits high up in the bestsellers chart. But Dr McKeith might as well have called the book ‘The Duck Diet’ – because it is pure quackery.

She begins by telling the story of how her American boyfriend took her to a workshop with Elaine Nussbaum, a woman who claimed to have been cured of cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet. ‘My parents warned me about things like this before I left Scotland’, says McKeith. But this was a Damascene conversion: ‘That’s when my journey began, when I realised just how powerful food is’, she declares. You could replace ‘food’ with ‘God’ in this book and it would still make perfect sense. (2)

We are treated to a list of apparently undisputable Food Facts: our diets cause heart disease, cancer, infertility, diabetes, osteoporosis and anxiety. Then we are advised about good foods and bad foods. ‘Foods that are organic have been grown in soils that have not been sprayed with chemical fertilisers and pesticides’, says McKeith, rather inaccurately, because organic farmers do use a limited range of pesticides from time to time. ‘Who knows what damage they will do?’ (3) Well, Gillian, you’re the expert – aren’t you supposed to know?

Then she offers untested treatments for all sorts of ailments. Here’s one for ‘burning tongue’ (‘a sign that the stomach is lacking in gastric digestive juices. You may also experience tummy trouble if you have this symptom’):

  • Try taking a spoonful of Swedish Bitters daily. It will really help to increase your gastric juice secretions.
  • Drink a cup of dandelion tea twice a day.
  • Take a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before each meal.
  • HCL (hydrochloric acid) tablets can help to adjust the gastric juices in the stomach.

Or if you have greasy stools that won’t flush, try ‘ayurvedic cleansing tri herb combination Triphala. If you can’t find that anywhere, try psyllium husks and treat yourself to a home enema’. The health-food shop near the spiked office sells a small tub of Triphala capsules for £17.50 – hardly an everyday item. Psyllium husks sound like something out of Star Trek, and you will probably wish they were by the time you’ve given yourself that enema.

If this is supposed to be food, it must seem incredible to Dr McKeith that the human race has survived so long. In fact, our survival has depended upon us being able to cope with scarcity and a limited variety of food. The suggestion that we must eat a vast range of foods to achieve proper nutrition is simply untrue. In recent years we may have started eating more than we should, but even this doesn’t affect the health of the vast majority of us.

If McKeith’s remedies are supposed to be medicine, surely they should be put forward for clinical trial? But McKeith isn’t, as many will assume, a medical doctor. Her qualification is a PhD in nutrition – from a correspondence college in Birmingham, Alabama that specialises in promoting ‘naturopathy’ (4).

What is shocking is not so much that McKeith (or UK government officials for that matter) see it as their right to lecture us on how we should live our lives, even when the scientific basis for their views is dubious. Rather, it is the willingness of people to accept their authority, even when it runs contrary to their own instincts.

In the first episode of You Are What You Eat, McKeith’s subject is Yvonne, a fat and funny woman from Glasgow who relentlessly takes the mickey out of the so-called expert. What a shame, then, that she listens to the advice, because she could easily have lost weight without accepting McKeith’s mumbo-jumbo – and retained her healthy scepticism and some self-respect, too.

Yvonne reflects the fact that, in the past, the obsession with health and lifestyle would have been the preserve of the cranky middle classes and the idle rich. Now it seems that this obsession has gripped us all.

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