I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m an overly sensitive person, but sometimes I get a bit upset by Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. There she is on the television, talking about science, making an obese woman cry, in her own back garden, by showing her a tombstone with her own name on it, made out of chocolate. And here she is, in an article headed “I lost 4 stone after telly’s Gillian said You’ll be dead by the time you’re 40” (The Mirror, September 6 2006), where one of her delighted customers describes Gillian’s bedside manner in glowing terms: “Kim MacDonald credits a single movement for changing her life. Sitting on her bed … Gillian said: ‘Do you want to see your daughter get married and have babies? Because the way things are going you’ll have a heart attack at 40’, says Kim, from Cambridge … with tears streaming down her face, Kim agreed to change – and ended up becoming Gillian’s most successful candidate.”
It’s hard to imagine an NHS doctor attaining wealth, the adoration of patients, or professional acclaim by deploying this kind of approach. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a doctor like this having many patients at all, after all the professional complaints against them, and endless meetings with the clinical director, and probably the GMC, to discuss their bedside manner.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that she should be forbidden from practising whatever it is she practises, or censured.
If people want theatrically abusive nutritional advice from someone with qualifications such as a PhD from a non-accredited correspondence course college in the US (which sells its own range of alternative health products online) then that’s fine by me, and she’s absolutely entitled to call herself doctor, even if she does apparently have some slightly odd ideas about science.
They include, to take the briefest example, nutritional energy and photosynthesis, explaining in her 1.5m copies (gosh) bestselling books that chlorophyll is “high in oxygen”; eating it will oxygenate your blood (not without a searchlight up your bum to drive the photosynthesis of oxygen, I would suggest); and that “each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full grown healthy plant” (I have an apple seed in my left hand and an apple tree in my right, for comparison, as I try to work out what she means).
Anyway. I’m not bothered by her nastiness, in the “regulate them” sense of the word: it’s just a lot more extreme than I remembered, and that makes her popularity interesting. Because people elect to see McKeith, to be told off and made to cry, both in her clinic and on her Channel 4 TV shows.
There’s clearly a place in the healthcare market for this kind of Victorian and authoritarian approach. In fact, it seems to me that many of the key traits of alternative therapists are, paradoxically, the key traits of old fashioned paternalistic medicine. They provide certainty, and a sense of expertise: “I know what’s wrong with you,” they say. “I am the expert, I am telling you exactly what to do to get well.” Then, like McKeith, they hand over an ambitious herbal concoction, and some reasonably sensible housewife’s wisdom, with unswerving conviction. It’s not just the medicine that’s old fashioned, the proprietary preparations, the “horny goat weed” in McKeith’s “Fastformula Horny Complex” for men, it’s the whole bedside manner. Gillian is a Victorian doctor.
But stranger than the attraction to her patients is the attraction for us. We choose, in droves, to watch her bully very fat people on television. People racked with low self-esteem, and guilt, are abused, and told they will die young because of their own actions, then they cry, and we watch it, as entertainment, satisfied it’s their own fault. Fatties.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
Another favourite McKeith quote is here:
“An acid body means that there is an excess of hydrogen ions which combine with oxygen to form water. This excess hydrogren depletes the body’s oxygen. Simply stated, a shortage of oxygen causes cells to break down and die, creating acidosis.”
Watch science nerds try and get to the bottom of what on earth she means by that published statement here.