Nutritionist-free diets

June 2nd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, nutritionists, weight loss | 6 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 2, 2005
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· OK, hands up. I hate nutritionists and phoney diet marketers. I hate them because they confuse evidence and theory. I hate them because they make sweeping assertions that something will work in the real world on the basis of tenuous laboratory data. And they either do not understand that, or they do and they are being dishonest. In either case, I hate them. I hate them because they are richer than me. And lastly, and this is a tricky one, I hate them because they give dangerous advice.

· At first glance, they give quite sensible advice. Dr Gillian McKeith PhD – for all the awful poo business and her bizarre misunderstanding of basic science about things like photosynthesis – promotes a pretty normal, sensible, healthy diet. The GI diet, for all the guff that goes with it, does too. And the grandiose nutritionism-peddling columnists from Sunday magazines, even if they do recommend you eat some particular nut because it contains lots of vitamin G and selenium, are still basically recommending fruit and veg. Everyone knows basic dietary advice, and they don’t need a nutritionist, doctor, alternative therapist or journalist, to tell them. They need their mum.

· But the trouble is this: nutritionists and their kin sell the idea that diet is somehow more complicated than that; something that requires access to arcane and detailed knowledge to which only they have access; knowledge of the breakdown of exactly what is in each food. And so the shopper is paralysed. But do I need vitamins L and Y this week? Or calcium? Or protein? Or no protein? What kind of fat did you say again? Because when you sell the idea that eating well is complicated, that foods are made of immemorable combinations of chemicals, then you prime the market for Fruittella Plus “with added calcium and vitamins B, C and E”, and 7-Up Plus from Cadbury’s “with calcium and vitamin C” and the rest. I could go on. In fact, market research company Mintel’s new Global Products Database has identified a trend among confectionery manufacturers to fortify their products with vitamins and minerals. Mintel watch you eat. Their reports have chapter headings such as “continued focus on indulgence in desserts” and “focus on children in processed poultry sector”. And they are watching your every little irrationality so that somebody, somewhere, can take advantage of it. The moral? Eat your greens. Or the bogeymen will come and get you with their weird processed chicken army.

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6 Responses

  1. drewprice said,

    June 5, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    I agree with much of what you say regarding this situation, however there is much you don’t say. I don’t know why you didn’t include these in you blog (I could understand their omission form you column) but I feel they deserve a mention…

    Being a Dr you of all people should be acutely aware of the reason for this predicament (your columns on Gillian Mckeith are very entertaining by the way – keep up the good work!) i.e. the lack of a protection for the title Nutritionist. I call myself a nutritionist and hold a BSc in Biochemistry and a masters degree in nutrition but someone who has been on a correspondence course for a couple of months has access to the same title! Clearly that is wrong and steps are being taken in the UK to rectify this.

    Nutrition Society of Great Britain are working hard on this issue, with the title of ‘Registered Nutritionist’ requiring the minimum competencies (link below). This is a good start I think you would agree.

    So, people should be eating correctly and they know how to. Why are they not then? The reasons are many fold and complex and clearly more work needs to undertaken to improve this situation. You lay part of the blame at quack nutritionists by their over complication of the subject, this is quite fair. I am as angry about this as you are, maybe more so…


    The medical profession (read: pharmaceutical industry and doctors/clinicians as well as others) have actively overseen the medicalisation of poor dietary (and lifestyle) choices and the associated malaise. This situation leads to the very really possibility that money is being misspent on long-term medication when it should be spent on education and lifestyle change, (if I had a penny for every one who has been prescribed satins for marginally elevated LDL cholesterol levels without even being offered any dietary or exercise/activity/lifestyle counselling) leaving more people on drugs they do not necessarily need, who’s long term effects are not completely understood, a larger bill for the NHS and with a general public who perception is that they “don’t have to worry too much as the doctor has a pill to fix it”. Surely this is much worse?

    In terms of cost efficiency should GPs being paid £85-100K a year be tasked with this role of dietary education and lifestyle counselling? Clearly not. How about the over worked State Registered Dietician? Again, no.

    Enter the suitably educated, skilled and qualified, Registered Nutritionist….


    Drew Price

  2. Tony C said,

    February 8, 2007 at 10:39 am

    “how many people are there who seriously need nutrional advice? As ben’s article said, not too much fat plenty of fruit and veg, lay off the booze is good enough for, i imagine >99% of the population.”

    Have you ever looked out of your window ? If suggest you do , you’ll see there are lots of unhealthy , obese people – Why would that be if it were all “so simple”

    Why would these people be begging their Doctors for Diet pills , or willing to take Dragons Vommit capsules on a Daily basis ( If holland & Barrett hint that they help you lose a few pounds )

    Your Ignorance in this highlights to me EXACTLY why a PROPER Nutrutionist is helpful

    .. But again , we are talking about nutrition BASED ON SOLID SCIENCE – not psuedoscience quackery & Holistic nonsense that we see on TV

    Mr Goldacre , I am surprised that you appear to hoard all types of Nutritionist under the same pigeon-hole , Regardless of qualification , Surely you must accept that there is such a thing as good nutrition , and there is auch a thing as poor nutrition ? And deny it as much as you like , but a vast number of people do not understand exactly where they are going wrong

    Mrs McKeith , is way off the mark – but whose fault is that ? Well Mr Goldacre – IT IS YOUR FAULT ! … or more to the point, it is the fault of the Media machine (That you work for)
    Sensible , science based nutrition is never going to sell TV programmes & magazine articles is it ? , But the Artichoke & Red Pepper diet ? … Well that’ll sell droves of magazines won’t it ?
    ( oops – I have inadvertantly put all Journalist in the same pigeon hole , just as you do with Nutritionists – Frustratiing isn’t it ? )

  3. Organic Potatoes said,

    February 9, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    You’re not a nutritionist by any chance, are you?

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    I think that the general population is in need of education on fitness – inclusive of exercise and nutrition info.

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