Friday, February 16, 2007


If you know anything about biological science, some of the quack stuff noted below will have you in fits

Call her the Awful Poo Lady, call her Dr Gillian McKeith PhD: she is an empire, a multi-millionaire, a phenomenon, a prime-time TV celebrity, a bestselling author. She has her own range of foods and mysterious powders, she has pills to give you an erection, and her face is in every health food store in the country. Scottish Conservative politicians want her to advise the government. The Soil Association gave her a prize for educating the public. And yet, to anyone who knows the slightest bit about science, this woman is a joke.

One of those angry nerds took her down this week. A regular from my website - I can barely contain my pride - took McKeith to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaining about her using the title "doctor" on the basis of a qualification gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited American college. He won. She may have sidestepped the publication of a damning ASA draft adjudication at the last minute by accepting - "voluntarily" - not to call herself "doctor" in her advertising any more. But would you know it, a copy of that draft adjudication has fallen into our laps, and it concludes that "the claim `Dr' was likely to mislead". The advert allegedly breached two clauses of the Committee of Advertising Practice code: "substantiation" and "truthfulness".

Is it petty to take pleasure in this? No. 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. 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.

In fact, I don't care what kind of squabbles McKeith wants to engage in over the technicalities of whether a non-accredited correspondence-course PhD from the US entitles you, by the strictest letter of the law, to call yourself "doctor": to me, nobody can be said to have a meaningful qualification in any biology-related subject if they make the same kind of basic mistakes made by McKeith.

And the scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of "referenciness", with nice little superscript numbers, which talk about trials, and studies, and research, and papers . but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it's shocking how often they aren't what she claimed them to be in the main body of the text. Or they refer to funny little magazines and books, such as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite, Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, rather than proper academic journals.

She even does this in the book Miracle Superfood, which, we are told, is the published form of her PhD. "In laboratory experiments with anaemic animals, red-blood cell counts have returned to normal within four or five days when chlorophyll was given," she says. Her reference for this experimental data is a magazine called Health Store News. "In the heart," she explains, "chlorophyll aids in the transmission of nerve impulses that control contraction." A statement that is referenced to the second issue of a magazine called Earthletter......

Shortly after the publication of McKeith's book Living Food for Health, before she was famous, John Garrow wrote an article about some of the rather bizarre scientific claims she was making. He was struck by the strength with which she presented her credentials as a scientist ("I continue every day to research, test and write furiously so that you may benefit ." etc). In fact, he has since said that he assumed - like many others - that she was a proper doctor. Sorry: a medical doctor. Sorry: a qualified conventional medical doctor who attended an accredited medical school.

Anyway, in this book, McKeith promised to explain how you can "boost your energy, heal your organs and cells, detoxify your body, strengthen your kidneys, improve your digestion, strengthen your immune system, reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure, break down fat, cellulose and starch, activate the enzyme energies of your body, strengthen your spleen and liver function, increase mental and physical endurance, regulate your blood sugar, and lessen hunger cravings and lose weight."

These are not modest goals, but her thesis was that it was all possible with a diet rich in enzymes from "live" raw food - fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and especially live sprouts, which "are the food sources of digestive enzymes". McKeith even offered "combination living food powder for clinical purposes" in case people didn't want to change their diet, and she used this for "clinical trials" with patients at her clinic.

Garrow was sceptical of her claims. Apart from anything else, as emeritus professor of human nutrition at the University of London, he knew that human animals have their own digestive enzymes, and a plant enzyme you eat is likely to be digested like any other protein. As any professor of nutrition, and indeed many GCSE biology students, could happily tell you.

Garrow read the book closely, as have I. These "clinical trials" seemed to be a few anecdotes in her book about how incredibly well McKeith's patients felt after seeing her. No controls, no placebo, no attempt to quantify or measure improvements. So Garrow made a modest proposal, and I am quoting it in its entirety, partly because it is a rather elegantly written exposition of the scientific method by an extremely eminent academic authority on the science of nutrition, but mainly because I want you to see how politely he stated his case.

"I also am a clinical nutritionist," began Professor Garrow, "and I believe that many of the statements in this book are wrong. My hypothesis is that any benefits which Dr McKeith has observed in her patients who take her living food powder have nothing to do with their enzyme content. If I am correct, then patients given powder which has been heated above 118F for 20 minutes will do just as well as patients given the active powder. This amount of heat would destroy all enzymes, but make little change to other nutrients apart from vitamin C, so both groups of patients should receive a small supplement of vitamin C (say 60mg/day). However, if Dr McKeith is correct, it should be easy to deduce from the boosting of energy, etc, which patients received the active powder and which the inactivated one.

"Here, then, is a testable hypothesis by which nutritional science might be advanced. I hope that Dr McKeith's instincts, as a fellow-scientist, will impel her to accept this challenge. As a further inducement I suggest we each post, say, 1,000 pounds, with an independent stakeholder. If we carry out the test, and I am proved wrong, she will, of course, collect my stake, and I will publish a fulsome apology in this newsletter. If the results show that she is wrong I will donate her stake to HealthWatch [a medical campaigning group], and suggest that she should tell the 1,500 patients on her waiting list that further research has shown that the claimed benefits of her diet have not been observed under controlled conditions. We scientists have a noble tradition of formally withdrawing our publications if subsequent research shows the results are not reproducible - don't we?"

This was published in - forgive me - a fairly obscure medical newsletter. Sadly, McKeith - who, to the best of my knowledge, despite all her claims about her extensive "resesarch", has never published in a proper "Pubmed-listed" peer-reviewed academic journal - did not take up this offer to collaborate on a piece of research with a professor of nutrition. Instead, Garrow received a call from McKeith's lawyer husband, Howard Magaziner, accusing him of defamation and promising legal action. Garrow, an immensely affable and relaxed old academic, shrugged this off with style. He told me. "I said, `Sue me.' I'm still waiting." His offer of 1,000 pounds still stands; I'll make it 2,000.....

Let me be very clear. Anyone who tells you to eat your greens is all right by me. If that was the end of it, I'd be McKeith's biggest fan, because I'm all in favour of "evidence-based interventions to improve the nation's health", as they used to say to us in medical school. 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've got too much sense to subject you to reams of scientific detail - I've learned from McKeith that you need theatrical abuse to hold the public's attention - but we can easily do one representative example. The antioxidant story is one of the most ubiquitous health claims of the nutritionists. Antioxidants mop up free radicals, so in theory, looking at metabolism flow charts in biochemistry textbooks, having more of them might be beneficial to health. High blood levels of antioxidants were associated, in the 1980s, with longer life. Fruit and vegetables have lots of antioxidants, and fruit and veg really are good for you. So it all made sense.

But when you do compare people taking antioxidant supplement tablets with people on placebo, there's no benefit; if anything, the antioxidant pills are harmful. Fruit and veg are still good for you, but as you can see, it looks as if it's complicated and it might not just be about the extra antioxidants. It's a surprising finding, but that's science all over: the results are often counterintuitive. And that's exactly why you do scientific research, to check your assumptions. Otherwise it wouldn't be called "science", it would be called "assuming", or "guessing", or "making it up as you go along".....

So what can you do? There's the rub. In reality, again, away from the cameras, the most significant "lifestyle" cause of death and disease is social class. Here's a perfect example. I rent a flat in London's Kentish Town on my modest junior doctor's salary (don't believe what you read in the papers about doctors' wages, either). This is a very poor working-class area, and the male life expectancy is about 70 years. Two miles away in Hampstead, meanwhile, where the millionaire Dr Gillian McKeith PhD owns a very large property, surrounded by other wealthy middle-class people, male life expectancy is almost 80 years. I know this because I have the Annual Public Health Report for Camden open on the table right now.

This phenomenal disparity in life expectancy - the difference between a lengthy and rich retirement, and a very truncated one indeed - is not because the people in Hampstead are careful to eat a handful of Brazil nuts every day, to make sure they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.... How can I be sure that this phenomenal difference in life expectancy between rich and poor isn't due to the difference in diet? Because I've read the dietary intervention studies: when you intervene and make a huge effort to change people's diets, and get them eating more fruit and veg, you find the benefits, where they are positive at all, are actually very modest. Nothing like 10 years....

I am writing this article, sneakily, late, at the back of the room, in the Royal College of Physicians, at a conference discussing how to free up access to medical academic knowledge for the public. At the front, as I type, Sir Muir Gray, director of the NHS National Electronic Library For Health, is speaking: "Ignorance is like cholera," he says. "It cannot be controlled by the individual alone: it requires the organised efforts of society." He's right: in the 19th and 20th centuries, we made huge advances through the provision of clean, clear water; and in the 21st century, clean, clear information will produce those same advances. Gillian McKeith has nothing to contribute: and Channel 4, which bent over backwards to dress her up in the cloak of scientific authority, should be ashamed of itself.

More here

British swim centre bars two-year-old girl because she isn't Muslim

Discrimination OK if it favours Muslims

When Lee Williams saw a parent-and-toddler session advertised at his local pool, he thought it was the perfect chance to teach his young daughter to swim. Arriving at the leisure centre already in her swimming costume, two-year-old Darby was desperate to get into the water. But she was left in tears when staff said they were not allowed in the pool because the session was for Muslim women and their children only.

Mr Williams, 34, bitterly criticised Manchester City Council yesterday after it admitted that advertising for the session, on its website and on leaflets, had been misleading. 'I can understand why Muslim women need to have this kind of session, but the council should not be advertising it as parent and toddler,' he said. 'They made out I'd got it wrong, but I had checked on the council's website for the times.'

The incident happened at Abraham Moss Leisure Centre in Crumpsall. Mr Williams, a delivery driver from Blackley, had seen the parent-and-toddler session being promoted on the council's website and a leaflet. But when they arrived, reception staff told Mr Williams he could not swim with Darby because it was a women-only session and they would have to come back later. Despite his protests that he had specifically checked the time of the session, the staff were insistent.

It was only when he telephoned the council to complain that he was told the session had been privately booked for Muslim women. According to Islam, women are forbidden from exposing their bodies to any man but their husband. A spokesman for Manchester City Council apologised to Mr Williams. He said: 'We were sorry to hear that he had been turned away. We are ensuring that our website is updated and staff are briefed so this does not happen again.'

The incident is the latest in a series of rows between local authorities and the public over swimming lessons for ethnic minority groups. In December last year, Croydon Council in South London came under fire for running Muslim-only sessions at one of its leisure centres. Non-Muslim members of Thornton Heath leisure centre were angry that they could not swim during the Muslim-only sessions on Saturdays and Sundays unless they obeyed the strict dress code. For men, this involved wearing shorts which kept the navel hidden and were extended below the knee, while women bathers had to wear a swimming costume which covered their body from the neck down to the ankle. Similarly, Wolverhampton Council and South Lanarkshire local authority have also been criticised for operating women- only swimming for Muslims.


Britain: Faulty software puts child health at risk

The health of children is at risk because an NHS computer system wrecked 20 years of accurate immunisation records

Faulty software introduced in 2005 has left some primary care trusts (PCTs) unable to track whether children have been vaccinated and screened for genetic conditions, raising fears that many are unprotected against diseases. Parents are not being reminded when their children are due for jabs and check-ups. The Health Protection Agency cannot publish full statistics on the uptake of vaccines because the five worst-affected London trusts cannot provide accurate data.

When the shortcomings of the Child Health Interim Application (CHIA) software were disclosed by The Times a year ago, the Department of Health stated that the problems were being addressed. Staff were said yesterday to be "in despair" at continuing difficulties with the system supplied by BT. Christine Sloczynska, consultant community paediatri-cian at Waltham Forest PCT, in East London, said: "I'm sure there will be kids who slip through the net and will be unimmunised. Our immunisation take-up has fallen from 94 per cent to 58 per cent, but we don't know how much it is due to children missing their vaccinations, or to lack of data."

The Health Protection Agency said that five trusts had been excluded from national figures for uptake of MMR and other vaccinations as their data were considered unreliable. Pat Troop, head of the agency, said: "There is still a gap in the data, and it's something the local NHS are concerned about, not just us. Not monitoring coverage of measles is how infections might happen." Mike Catchpole, of the agency, said that it was not possible to predict when the affected PCTs could provide the data.

The CHIA software was introduced in ten London trusts when an older system was withdrawn. Dr Slocynzska said that the system could not be used to generate lists of those who match particular criteria, such as missing vaccinations. This makes it difficult for GPs to issue reminders. Parents are still issued with a "red book" listing a vaccination schedule, but the problems with the computer make it hard to tell them when new jabs are available. Birth records formerly sent online from maternity units must be entered by hand, and there is a backlog. "We are sometimes told of a child's death before we know it has been born," Dr Sloczynska said. BT has promised to replace the software.


NHS corruption

SUSSEX: An NHS trust that gave a former public health director a payoff of 243,000 pounds after working less than three weeks also paid lawyers 12,000 for advice on how to manage the case. Sussex Downs Primary Care Trust revealed that it made the payments to Capsticks Solicitors, of London. The legal advice concerned the treatment of Iheadi Onwukwe, 41, who was appointed in September 2002. He worked briefly for Eastbourne Downs Primary Care Trust, which later merged with Sussex Downs Primary Care Trust, and was reported to have been paid a salary for almost three years while on “gardening leave” before leaving his post. Gina Brocklehurst, former chief executive of the trust, received 230,000 to leave as part of the reorganisation. Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, said: “This shows how endemic the problem is of the NHS writing out blank cheques with our money.”


British gun control at work. Teen shot dead in London is third this month: "A 15-year-old boy has been shot dead in south London, becoming the third teenage boy to be gunned down in the area this month, police said. London Police Chief Ian Blair has called a meeting with colleagues following the spate of murders, the Metropolitan Police said. "We would like to reassure the communities in south London that we are taking the current situation very seriously and are doing everything in our power to find those responsible," the police said in a statement. In the latest killing, officers were called to an address in Lambeth, where they found the boy with a gunshot wound. Paramedics also attended but he was pronounced dead at the scene. Cordons were put up around the area as a murder investigation got underway. Another 15-year-old boy, Michael Dosunmu, was shot dead at his house in Peckham, south London, on February 6. Three days earlier, James Smartt-Ford, 16, was gunned down a few miles away at Streatham ice rink. Despite the rising death toll, police insisted overall gun crime in London continued to fall. [How? The Times has more]

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