An Illustrated History Of Food Gurus

November 25th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, nutritionists | 22 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday November 25, 2006
The Guardian

It would be almost too easy to poke fun at Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, just because she’s been busted by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority this week for selling sordid medicinal products without a license. But as my girlfriend could happily tell you, I’m not a complicated man. So, Ms McKeith’s “Wild Pink” and “Horny Goat Weed” sex supplements are sold for “maintaining erections, orgasmic pleasure, ejaculation… lubrication, satisfaction, and arousal”, and sexual pleasure is, historically, the natural domain of quackery: but without the appropriate license, demonstrating safety, quality, and efficacy, her products were illegal.

Interestingly, although the contemporary nutritionism movement likes to present itself as a thoroughly modern and evidence based enterprise, the food guru industry, with its outlandish promises, moralising, and sexual obsessions, goes back at least 170 years. Like our modern food gurus, the historical figures of nutritionism were mostly enthusiastic lay people; and just like our modern food gurus, they all claimed to understand nutritional science, nature, evidence, and medicine, better than the scientists of their time. The advice and the products may have shifted with the prevailing religious and moral notions of the time, but they have always played to the market, be it puritan or liberal, new age or christian.

Graham crackers are a digestive biscuit, not entirely unhealthy, invented by Sylvester Graham, the first great advocate of vegetarianism and nutritionism as we would know it, and proprietor of the world’s first health food shop. Like his descendants today, Graham mixed up sensible notions – like cutting down on cigarettes and alcohol – with some other rather more esoteric ideas which he concocted for himself, warning that ketchup and mustard, for example, can cause “insanity”.

I’ve got no great beef with the organic food movement, but it’s still interesting to note that Graham’s health food store – in 1837 – heavily promoted its food as being grown according to “physiological principles” on “virgin unvitiated soil”. This was soil that had not been “subjected” to the “overstimulation” of manure.

Soon these food marketing techniques were picked up by more overtly puritanical religious zealots like John Harvey Kellogg (he of the cornflake). Kellogg was a natural healer, masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate, promoting his granola bars as the route to abstinence, temperance, and solid morals. He ran a sanitarium for private clients, using “holistic” techniques, including McKeith’s favourite, colonic irrigation.

I particularly enjoy the bit in Kellogg’s “Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects”, where he recommends circumcision: “The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.” Kellogg also advocated exposing the tissue on the glans, so that it smarted nastily with friction during self-pollution. You do have to wonder about the motives of anyone who thinks the problem through in that much detail.

By the early 20th century a man called Bernard MacFadden had updated the nutritionism model for contemporary moral values, and so became the most commercially successful drugless therapist of the era. The pseudoscience and the posturing were the same, but he used liberal sexuality to his advantage, selling his granola bars as a food that would promote a muscular, thrusting, lustful lifestyle, in that decadent rush that flooded the population between the wars.

And interestingly, MacFadden’s food product range was complemented by a more unusual invention of his own. The “Peniscope” was a popular suction device designed to enlarge the male organ which is still used by many today, in a modestly updated form. Since this may be your only opportunity to learn about the evidence on penis enlargement, it’s worth mentioning that there is, in fact, some evidence that stretching devices can increase penis size. So to judge by the MHRA ruling, rather charmingly, as it happens, MacFadden’s Peniscope may have a better evidence base for its claims than either his own food products, or McKeith’s Horny Goat Love Bar.

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You can read the press release of the MHRA’s attack on McKeith’s products here, as well as (new on the page) the bizarre tale of McKeith’s attempt at damage limitation.

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22 Responses

  1. Junkmonkey said,

    November 25, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    For a fun fictionalised account of Kellog and his methods, may I recommend the movie ‘The Road to Wellville’ to one and all.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 25, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    since we’re talking about sex, as i dig about trying to buy a copy, it’s interesting to note that this film is also well received on imdb’s complementary site, the very very wrong celebrity nudity database.

  3. BrunoBigNose said,

    November 25, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    I read this on The Graun’s website today. The funny bit for me was that the robot which matches ads to articles put three links to dieting websites at the end. Two for pills, one for a patch. I don’t think that’ll be a very effective in generating sales.

    PS. I’ve only just signed up to badscience, but I’ve been lurking for ages. I’m a huge fan, and fabulous work Dr G!

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 25, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    “The funny bit for me was that the robot which matches ads to articles put three links to dieting websites at the end. Two for pills, one for a patch.”

    yeah, similarly, i had a nightmare emailing it in, nobody was getting my emails, it turned out the spam filters were driven wild by the claims for mckeiths product, because there’s so much “1mpr0ve ur ejaculate satisfy your w0man” email spam around, the filters just rejected the column outright every time i sent it…

  5. deryck said,

    November 25, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    Is it just me or does her right hand seem strange in the full body picture on

  6. billgibson said,

    November 25, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    Is it just me, or does anyone else feel sorry for the bloke whose wife had announced to him and the rest of the world that she’s divorcing him in the advert below Ben’s column in today’s Grauniad?

  7. Michael Harman said,

    November 25, 2006 at 9:29 pm

    Looking at the site noted by deryk, she does look thoroughly scrawny – not just the peculiar right hand.

    And her blurb beside it is interesting as well (I’ve added the emphasis):

    “After more than 15 years *in clinical practice* … ” – Dr Gillian McKeith

  8. doctormonkey said,

    November 25, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    fun fun fun about Ms McKeith from the website given by deryck in #5

    the school she got her acupuncture certificate from is not recognised by the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board (whoever they are but they recognise courses from or associated with proper universities)

    she also has “a Masters and doctorate (PhD) in Holistic Nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition (USA)” – I thought we had established she did not have a recognised PhD…

    I can’t be bothered with the rest but she just seems more and more like a snake oil salesman/person the more I read or see about her

  9. billgibson said,

    November 26, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    “she also has “a Masters and doctorate (PhD) in Holistic Nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition (USA)” – I thought we had established she did not have a recognised PhD…”

    We’ve all recognised that, DrM, but it appears that she hasn’t. I notice that Channel 4 have started calling her “Ms McKeith”. Personally I prefer to preface her name with “that odious charlatan loony”.


  10. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 26, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    Shall I admit to watching on “five”, [A Girl's Guide to 21st Century Sex]? Just to keep up with what colleagues may be talking about. (Or not.) Anyway, going by the adverts they show, who are they kidding with the “girl” thing. But they also did a penis enlargement trial – and, yeah, the various methods seemed to work, fancy that, but you wouldn’t want to do it, really. Not unless you really, really had to.

    Oh, and in UK History’s [Sex, Love and War] – why am I admitting this? – one girl from the ATS or similar recollected that most of her unit had disappointing experiences with men – possibly also implying that what they said about ATS girls was quite true, but in the circumstances (war on) you couldn’t hold it against them – and they all went, not as a group, to this doctor who usually diagnosed an underdeveloped clitoris. If you rubbed his fairly expensive cream on it you’d have orgasm all right – and they did – and you’d be able to hang a copper kettle on it, which is a difficult scene to picture and wouldn’t you burn your legs?

    So it really has been going on for some time. Probably since Enlightenment scientists first discovered vacuum.

  11. lizdav said,

    November 26, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    Working in a place where her dubiuos stuff is sold, any product which is taken off the shelf is great by me

  12. Teek said,

    November 27, 2006 at 10:09 am

    billgobson said:

    “We’ve all recognised that, DrM, but it appears that she hasn’t. I notice that Channel 4 have started calling her “Ms McKeith”. Personally I prefer to preface her name with “that odious charlatan loony”.

    spot on, altho as i have an acronym fetish i prefer TAPL – that awful poo lady – as do many on this site…!!

  13. evidencebasedeating said,

    November 27, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Michaels comment #7 highilighting TAPL presumed credentials…

    “After more than 15 years *in clinical practice* … ” – Dr Gillian McKeith

    is nothing new to us quackwatchers of nutrition. The natural evolution of the genre were the original 1980’s ‘nutritional therapists’, with the public eventually recognising that the term ‘therapist’ was very loosely associated with any expertise in the subject . Then came the promotion of the ‘nutritionist’ – a non-protected title used by the bona fide and the enthusiastic amateur alike. But opening appointment sessions in post retail establishments and the ubiquitous high street health food store allowed the title to extend to ‘clinical nutritionist’ – sounds so much more, well, clinical (ergo, ‘knowledgeable’) than their previous incarnations.
    and now, of course we have the title ‘leading clinical nutritionist’ -a term banded about by deluded enthusiastic amateurs who consider the approval of their fellow enthusiastic amateurs or uninformed public as evidence of the integrity of their knowledge. Paradoxically, the true ‘leading clinical nutritionists’ recognised by those qualified to have an opinion (such as Registered Nutritionists and Registered Dietitians in the UK) have very little media presence, being ensconced in the sound scientific scrutiny of nutritional research that wil generate real and meaningful indicators of nutritional recommendations for the future – not the “wheat free, milk free, supplement promoting, dodgy intolerance testing” mantras of the current gurus.

  14. Andrew Clegg said,

    November 27, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    “Kellogg was a natural healer, masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate”

    Ben, perhaps “anti-masturbation campaigner” would have been better, to distinguish him from the likes of Wilhelm Reich


  15. billgibson said,

    November 27, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    Teek – shall I take you calling me billgobson as an innocent typo or a subtle way of telling me to shut up? ;~)

  16. ayupmeduck said,

    November 27, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    Not living in the UK, this is then first time I’d seen an image of the Lady and it literally made me shudder:

  17. Mojo said,

    November 28, 2006 at 9:59 am

    billgibson said (#9), “We’ve all recognised that, DrM, but it appears that she hasn’t.”

    To the extent that the front page of her website manages to cram in the phrases “Dr Gillian McKeith” or “Dr Gillian” 20 times.

  18. Martin said,

    November 28, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Maybe TAPL believes in Goebbels assertion that if you repeat a lie often enough people will begin to believe it.

    Of course I wouldn’t dream of linking the Nazi propaganda minister with TAPL in any other form.

    P.S. Allegedly. (Does this work?)

  19. Kells said,

    November 28, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    I think TAPL should be referred to as TAPL, 47. I was shocked to discover her age in a recent Times article. Up until that point I thought she looked pretty bad for someone in their mid to late fifties, now I’m worried for her health.

    I wouldn’t make any cruel jokes about looking battered or the effects of too much dried fruit etc

  20. TimW said,

    November 29, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    Maybe that’s not her real age, same as she’s not a real doctor.

    Or perhaps it really is 47 but not in base 10. Hexadecimal perhaps.

  21. John Coffin said,

    November 30, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    By the way, that’s *Bernarr* Macfadden. A much more prominent American nutcase than your mention suggests. Killed a couple of his children with quack remedies, launched the career of Dr. Bates, made millions publishing ‘True Confessions’ and other lurid lumpenpornographie, ran for President of the US for the Physical Culture Party, etc.

    Have McKeith and Ann Coulter ever been seen at the same time? The pathological scrawniness and glazed eyes are a dead match.

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