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… ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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spiked has only two words to say to the TV Presenter Formerly Known As Dr Gillian McKeith, now plain old Gillian McKeith after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) effectively forced her to drop the doctor: ‘Ha ha.’ It is two-and-a-half years since our health and science writer Rob Lyons first raised awkward questions about McKeith’s qualifications, and her use of ‘pure quackery’ to browbeat the fat masses into dieting, so it’s nice that the authorities and the mainstream media have finally caught up.

But we have a few more words to say to those denouncing McKeith as a ‘menace to science’, a ‘dangerous’ threat to reason and rationality, a ‘charlatan’ single-handedly making people panic about their diet and body shape: ‘Get a reality check!’ McKeith is merely parasitical on a deep-rooted obsession with health and obesity that is encouraged and inflamed by the government, the medical establishment and the media. Pressuring the shit-probing TV presenter-cum-author to stop using the title Dr is one thing; presenting that as a great victory for the forces of reason over poo-obsessed reaction is another thing entirely, akin to taking out the court jester while leaving the court itself intact, and in business.

The ASA concluded that McKeith’s use of Dr was likely to mislead the public, making some believe that she was actually a qualified medical doctor. In fact, her doctorate is a PhD in holistic nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition, which she got through a distance-learning course. Anyone who has seen McKeith’s Channel 4 series You Are What You Eat will know that she is an irritant. In a typical show she will move in with some feckless fat family, usually of the working-class variety, and insist that they stop eating red meat, chips and crisps and instead get by on a diet of ghastly mashed-up vegetable smoothies and barely edible sushi concoctions. Worse, she gets them to change their diets by a combination of moral and emotional blackmail and by making unfounded, or at least very creaky, scientific claims – such as that bad diets cause heart disease, cancer, infertility, diabetes, osteoporosis and even anxiety. Her specialities include prodding her willing victims’ creased, flabby bodies for evidence of ill-health, and sniffing and examining their faeces for signs of sinful behaviour like some Ancient Roman priest peering at the entrails of a slaughtered beast in order to discover the wishes of the gods.

Yet McKeith is only the most visible exponent of today’s unhealthy obsession with healthy living. Government ministers and bodies are forever feeding us advice about what to eat, what not to eat, and what to feed our children. In 2004, the UK House of Commons Health Select Committee published a report on obesity so hysterical that it made the likes of McKeith sound almost reasonable by comparison (we said ‘almost’). The report declared that Britain was drowning in a sea of unsightly flab, with ‘three quarters of the adult population now overweight or obese’. It painted a ‘bleak picture’ of our fat future, in which ‘the sight of amputees will become much more familiar…there will be many more blind people… there will be huge demand for kidney dialysis’. ‘Indeed’, it said, ‘this will be the first generation where children die before their parents as a consequence of childhood obesity’.

There was little evidence to back up these wild and noxious claims, as the report coolly and cynically glossed over the fact that children are healthier than ever, and that a boy born today can expect to live to 76 and a girl to 81, in contrast to boys and girls born in 1901, who were lucky if they made it to 46 and 50 years of age respectively. And this report was written by MPs with the help of real doctors. The report set the tone for much of the subsequent obesity panic, which has seen GPs furnished with fat charts so that they can check that their patients measure up to the new national standard; large parts of the school curriculum reoriented around healthy eating and exercise advice, including plans to weigh all kids and warn their parents if there’s too much puppy fat; and proposals that the NHS refuse to treat obese people unless they fight the flab first. In early 2005 the whole of British parliamentary politics dedicated itself to combating the alleged scourge of chocolate- and chips-induced obesity as politicians and journalists fawned over celeb chef Jamie Oliver and his school dinners campaign. That campaign, too, was built on highly dubious claims about food and health, yet Oliver didn’t bother even with the pretence of being a doctor.

In such a climate, is it really surprising that a woman who promises to make us slim and healthy and happy finds that her TV series is watched by millions, her books top the bestseller charts, and her spin-off line of grub flies off the shelves in health shops? Anyone who thinks it was the word ‘Dr’ on the jacket that made Ms McKeith’s books popular is deluding themselves. Rather, at a time when food, fat and exercise have bizarrely become highly politicised issues, there is a susceptibility amongst the public to panic about their health and to look to gurus who promise salvation through fruit. ‘Is it petty to take pleasure in this?’ asked Ben Goldacre in the Guardian in his feature on McKeith’s loss of the title of doctor. Not really petty, so long as we understand that haranguing one TV chancer will not do anything to challenge the obesity panic or the denigration of medical science in the service of government propaganda and cynical profiteering.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…?

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Topics Politics

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