Saturday February 3, 2007
As the awful poo lady goes into her fourth series on Channel 4, I can’t stop thinking about that PhD. I’m talking about Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, of course. It’s from a non-accredited correspondence college in the US, so no trustworthy government body attests to their standards. But I’m open minded, and it was always perfectly possible that she’d done a meaningful piece of work, on top of paying those correspondence course fees.
For many years now I have wanted to read her thesis for myself, just to satisfy my curiosity. This should have been a pretty straightforward affair: PhDs are, by convention, always lodged in a library, in an archive, where they can be seen. Sadly, Clayton College of Natural Health – who also sell their own range of vitamin supplements – refused to show me McKeith’s thesis. Or anybody’s. I drew a blank.
But then came a breakthrough: I was contacted by a rogue nutritionist. She had been told that McKeith’s PhD had been published as “Miracle Superfood: Wild Blue-Green Algae, the nutrient powerhouse that stimulates the immune system, boosts brain power, and guards against disease”. I emailed McKeith Research (under a James Bond assumed name, of course) and they confirmed that this book was, indeed, McKeith’s PhD.
I say book. It’s more like a stapled pamphlet, available at only Â£1.99, because it’s only 48 pages. Which is quite short for a PhD. And that’s including recipes, title plates, and contents pages.
Maybe this pamphlet is just a shortened and simplified version of the PhD text, but if it is at all based on her thesis it is not a good advert for that as a scholarly work. Inside is what I could only describe as Cargo Cult science: she’s going through the motions, but the content, only closer inspection, is like an eerie parody of an academic text.
There are lots of grand statements about research, with nice superscript numbers relating to references in the back. But when you chase to the back of the book to see what these academic documents are, they include such august periodicals as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite: Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet.
Some of it is plainly absurd. As we get older, she explains, “the levels of RNA/DNA decrease.” Okay. “If you do not have enough RNA/DNA,” she goes on, you “may ultimately age prematurely”. Stress can deplete your DNA, but algae will increase it. And that’s not all. “Chlorophyll within the algae is a powerful oxygen generator for human beings.” Back to GCSE Biology: it’ll only make oxygen if there’s light inside me, Gillian …
She expands grandly and uncritically – with anecdote, but no data – about her many dramatic treatment successes, like a physician from the dark ages. She talks about her own “clinical research”, with huge claims for its findings, but wherever this clinical research is, all you can find here are her anecdotes.
Sometimes you think you’ve hit some data, but then, like a chimera, it disappears. Only 20% of calcium in supplements is absorbed, she explains, whereas all the calcium in algae is absorbable: there’s a superscript number, go to the references, in the back, number 31 … “Studies with author’s own patients”. That’s all it says.
And that’s just the start of the reference fun. “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 which is referenced to the second issue of a magazine called Earthletter.
Scientific terminology is wilfully conflated with fanciful new age waffle and, perhaps worryingly, she talks about blood tests, urine tests, chemicals, stool tests, treatments and diagnoses, with endless scientific terminology, frequently referencing her clinic and her patients, many of them children.
Channel 4 once styled this woman as a clinical nutritionist: she performed in a white coat, surrounded by laboratory equipment. Since people like me started digging, the McKeith industry – worth millions – describes her as a holistic nutritionist. There is no such thing as “holistic nutrition”: if you make statements about food which you suggest are backed up by academic/scientific research, as McKeith does, repeatedly, in her books, her shows, her semi-academic work, and products … then that’s just nutrition. The word “holistic” is at best a piece of branding; but at worst, it’s a cloak for accepting inadequate standards of referencing and evidence.