The Internal Examiner

February 3rd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, references | 85 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 3, 2007
The Guardian

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 £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.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

85 Responses

  1. HowardW said,

    February 5, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    I also tried to get info on GM’s “PhD” from Clayton college, but also failed – good to get confirmation that the algae book is closely connected to (or the same as) her PhD thesis. Some of my favourite quotes from this book include:

    “it is not inconceivable that on subtle vibrational levels, unique genetic memories and messages of harmony and peace are stored in algae, which have grown undisturbed for aeons in a pristine environment”

    (see New Scientist feature:

    Dudley – the Google results show a reasonable amount of balance, but my main GM page was removed from results after GM’s lawyer’s complained about defamation. At the time they complained my page was at number 2 in the Google results for “Gillian McKeith” – it’s now invisible to people using UK Google (unless you follow the “one result removed” link at the bottom).


  2. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 5, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Hah, I never thought of that before — her initials are GM. We should set the anti-GM-foods campaigners on her.


  3. Fin said,

    February 5, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    I have to agree with mikew (comment 39).

    I’m no fan of the stool-obsessed harridan and I think it’s a shame that, as a population, we seem to prefer Daily Mail headlines and sugar pills to good evidence – but that is the way it is.

    I’m guessing (no evidence here) that her presence in the world mobilises a few more fatties/smokers to get off their arse. So, on balance, why not?

    Also, these loons give me much entertainment via Ben’s excellent column on a Saturday.

    I for one shall be skimming my pond for a nutritious drink this summer and looking forward to looking as healthy as Gillian.

  4. raygirvan said,

    February 5, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    HowardW > it’s now invisible to people using UK Google (unless you follow the “one result removed” link at the bottom

    Since such a removal can’t be done invisibly, they shot themselves in the foot with this, a) because it inspires anyone with a scrap of curiosity to seek it out, b) because it worsens their image – litigious tossers are disliked even more than the plain variety.

  5. BrickWall said,

    February 6, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Re posts 39 and 53.

    The “no harm done” hypothesis is quite spurious in the wider context of the scientific necessity to use evidence.

    Accepting some benefit as legitimising the use of woo is a very dangerous path to go down e.g. Tony Blair’s response to the teaching of creationism in Emmanuel College (academy in Gateshead) – “taught alongside evolution it adds to the diversity of our education system”. Presumably so would teaching about the pixies at the end of the garden?

    Those few people who might respond to TAPL and the Daily Nazi would I suspect be just as likely to respond to anyone charsimatic who offers a more evidential based approach and isn’t selling their own wares!

    For a most excellent read on the dangers of the “no harm done” philosophy see Francis Wheen’s book – “How mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World” – also has a brilliant chapter on the post-modernists.

  6. Gordon said,

    February 6, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    It seems that there are many people hitting back against Ms McKeith. Here are some registered dietitians up in arms about reports describing her as a dietitian:

  7. briantist said,

    February 6, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    The channel 4 complain site seems to be still down, so you can either phone them on the switchboard (020) 7396 4444 or email

  8. ceec said,

    February 6, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Just looked at the GM website and found this gem:

    “She is… a member of several health organizations, including the prestigious National Association of National Professionals in the USA.”

    Needless to say that quite apart from having an extremely unlikely name, this prestigious organisation seems not to come up on Google searches. I wonder why.

  9. Barnacle Bill said,

    February 7, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Here’s a thread from my correspondence with her “people”:

    Read from the bottom up.

    From: []
    Sent: 06 February 2007 07:55
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    She doesn’t go around putting letters after her name; publishers of her books make the decisions about how her name is presented and given that she has a PhD they want people to know it.

    Sent: 05 February 2007 18:12
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    Then why does she put letters after her name that are highly dubious? What is the purpose?

    From: []
    Sent: 05 February 2007 17:13
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    Personally, I am not interested in the letters after people’s names or their lists of qualifications; the contribution that people make to society is far more interesting and important. Gillian’s most valuable credentials are the thousands of people world wide whose lives she has improved. Not many people can claim to have helped as many as Gillian.

    Best wishes
    Sent: 05 February 2007 16:34
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    I believe the American Holistic College of Nutrition is not accredited and therefore any PhD from that establishment is suspect, to say the least.

    From: []
    Sent: 05 February 2007 16:19
    Subject: RE: Qualifications


    Gillian was educated with a Bachelors Degree from the University of Edinburgh and a Masters Degree from the University of Pennsylvania (Ivy League, USA). After recovering from personal illness, she then went to train in nutrition. She spent almost five years of work on her PhD and dissertation, earning a doctorate from the American Holistic College of Nutrition as well as studying at the London school of Acupuncture.

    I hope that helps.

    Best wishes
    McKeith Research Ltd
    Sent: 05 February 2007 15:56
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    Could you avail me of the name of the college?

    From: []
    Sent: 05 February 2007 15:45
    Subject: RE: Qualifications


    Gillian’s PhD is from a nutrition college in America. Part of her thesis has been published by Keats publishing and is called Wild Blue Green Algae – the miracle super food.

    Best wishes

    McKeith Research Ltd
    Sent: 05 February 2007 15:43
    Subject: RE: Qualifications

    Where did she get the PhD from, and where can I obtain a copy of her thesis?

    From: []
    Sent: 05 February 2007 15:38
    Subject: RE: Qualifications


    Gillian has never claimed to be a medical doctor. She has a PhD (ie; a doctorate) thus has the title Dr in the same way that you get doctors of philosophy, literature, statistics etc. I hope that clarifies that for you.

    Best wishes
    McKeith Research Ltd
    Sent: 05 February 2007 15:13
    Subject: Qualifications

    You’re not a real Dr, are you?


  10. Despard said,

    February 7, 2007 at 11:16 am

    I note that you didn’t get ‘best wishes’ on the last one. 🙂

  11. jimothy said,

    February 7, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    “Gillian’s most valuable credentials are the thousands of people world wide whose lives she has improved. Not many people can claim to have helped as many as Gillian”

    Interestingly I know another woooo practictioner who goes for exactly the same line. Every time I see them they tell me gushingly about how many people’s live’s they’ve changed today. Perhaps this is something they teach them in woooo school.

  12. tinyclaw said,

    February 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    My good friends,

    At the risk of sounding as conceited as the Poo Lady herself, I think you are all missing the point.

    Whether we question here academic credentials or not, any scientific approach to a branch of inquiry is simply nature being subjected to our methods of questioning. The conventional and revered state of scientific inquiry and established proof may be based on international and traditional condonation, but we do have to face the fact that what is law and conclusive proof at one stage may be considered anachronistic at another. Of course, I would love to knock her off her high and mighty perch by sticking to the maxim of ‘prove it – scientifically!’, but let’s make her perch just a little higher – the fall will be greater and more satisfactory to observe.

    Let’s, for once, leave the area of ‘scientific, conclusive proof’, and imagine that her own methods may be incompatible with our own, but her evidence is just as worthy. Let us try to understand her position by considering her findings as ’empirical evidence’. Although we are questioning her methods, how about her results? Are the outcomes of her application being questioned as legitimate, or even considered at all in the confusion of pedantic scrutiny? For example, should I find myself with a hideous headache, I resort to a remedy bought from an accredited pharmacist. I take this remedy in light of the fact that previous uses have alleviated the symptoms. Therefore, it works, there’s my proof. I can’t prove how it works. I don’t know what the remedy consists of, and I can’t confirm what parts of my body are being affected and in what way, but so what? It works.

    Now, let’s take a look at the Poo Lady herself, and take a much wider view. Let’s leave academic squabble to one side, look at the empirical evidence, and come to a conclusion. First of all, I would imagine that the Poo Lady was not only the main advocate of her methods, but a strict practitioner. Coupling this assumption with her maxim ‘You are what you eat’, I can see visual evidence thus. I see a shrivelled gait, pendulous folds of skin on the face and neck, hollowed pits for eye sockets, dead looking, yellowish skin, and a semi-cadaverous countenance. I see nothing healthy or desirable in this vision, and I am therefore not inspired to follow her path. I see my own reflection: glowing skin and a healthy appearance. Yes, I’m sticking to chocolate bars, beer, and three sugars in me tea. I am what I eat? Sweet! The Poo Lady is what she eats too:

    Droopy Dog.

  13. bumpkin said,

    February 7, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Barnacle Bill: not sure it’s entirely ethical to post a private correspondence on a public forum without the consent of the other party. Whatever you may think of them.

  14. David Mingay said,

    February 7, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    Re #58, it looks like they’ve misprinted the second National — should be Nutritional. Here’s an inspiring poem from their homepage:

    A bit of inspiration…

    Until one is committed
    there is hesitancy,
    the chance to draw back,
    always ineffectiveness.

    Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation)
    there is one elementary truth,
    the ignorance of which
    kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
    that the moment one definately commits oneself,
    then Providence moves too.

    All sorts of things occur
    to help one that would never otherwise
    have occurred.

    A whole stream of events
    issues from the decision,
    raising in one’s favor
    all manner of unforeseen incidents
    and meetings and material assistance,
    which no man could have dreamed
    would have come his way.

    I like the “committed” bit, insofar as they should be…

  15. rhj said,

    February 7, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    What concerns me is that the good “Dr” herself looks so horribly unhealthy. Has anyone else noticed? Hardly a glowing advertisement for the efficacy of the advice she so freely dispenses!

  16. Dr Aust said,

    February 7, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    I think the look is that of caloric restriction – like the people who work on the basis of the animal experiments where animals live longer when restricted to about 50% of the amount they would eat if given food “ad lib” :

    …Reading the page, and a recent article in the Observer magazine about crazed calorie-counting New Yorkers, it sounds pretty grim to do. Think I shall take the various mentions of resveratrol on board and have another glass of red wine instead.

  17. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 8, 2007 at 7:49 am

    I don’t think it takes much science or pseudoscience to establish that one can live longer by not having as much fun, but I know what I’d rather do.


  18. ayupmeduck said,

    February 8, 2007 at 8:26 am


    I took a look at the German law mayself here

    If I read this correctly, there is a risk of up to 1 year prision sentence for McKeith. Not something to be taken lightly.

  19. warumich said,

    February 8, 2007 at 9:32 am

    That’s the one. Though because McKeith lives in England things are slightly more complicated. Even so, prison sentences are of course only ever handed out in extreme situations – the best outcome we can hope for I think is a juicy fine (and of course public humiliation, if the newspapers run the story.)

    We’ll just have to see what happens. I’ve alerted the authorities to the case. They are obliged to follow it up, so now it’s out of my hand.

  20. fish_eyed_sam said,

    February 8, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Though I don’t normally like scoffing, this was rather fun:

    I found it while googling for “poo lady”

  21. used to be jdc said,

    February 8, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    There’s a bit of a discussion going on at the talk page for her Wiki entry (see also #42 above).

  22. PubPhilosophy said,

    February 8, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Re: 46

    Mr Harman, do you have a ref (online preferably) for the Littlewood story? Someone I know is considering a maths PhD and would be amused by it, but also I’m interested to see what he came up with…

  23. glutam9 said,

    February 8, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    The length of a thesis was never the measure we were interested in when i was studying. Everyone was completely obsessed with the length of time the viva took.

    under 3 hours – you must have been good

    3-4 hours – normalish.

    over 5 hours – having a bad time, we’ll leave a note and they can cacth us up in the pub later.

  24. livferrari said,

    February 8, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Ms McKeith is not the only one whose PhD thesis seems very hard to get hold of.

    Have you, Ben, or anyone else ever read any of Paul McKenna’s PhD theses? I know he sued the Mirror for calling the first one ‘bogus’. Ben told me that the second one was in ‘business studies’ and from a reputable institution, allegedly. Do you think I could get a copy of it from my university interlibrary loan system?

  25. pv said,

    February 8, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    “Barnacle Bill: not sure it’s entirely ethical to post a private correspondence on a public forum without the consent of the other party. Whatever you may think of them.”

    It’s legal and, in my view, ethical.

  26. abahachi said,

    February 8, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Re #36 on the Bologna Process – and apologies for tedious pedantry, but part of my job is chairing my university’s working group on this…

    The spirit of creating a European Higher Education Area by 2010 (fat chance) has been ‘tuning’ rather than ‘harmonisation’. This is very clearly the case with discussions on the doctoral level, which have only really got started in the last couple of years; lots of emphasis on the need to avoid excessive regulation, which translates as universities – especially the leading research universities in France, Germany, Scandinavia – being very protective of their own practices and reputation. There may be some movement towards adopting common principles, but it’s pretty clear that universities will insist on retaining the right to control the examination and award of their own qualifications.

    This does mean that they’re *very* protective about who should have the right to award PhDs at all (I wonder if this is one of the reasons behind the German law referred to above) – which is why all the nutters get theirs from dodgy ‘colleges’ in the US. Given that one of the aims of the process is to improve the mutual recognition of qualifications across Europe, this ought to imply the mutual rejection of illegitimate qualifications as well… I wouldn’t bother the Bologna Promotors with this – their main task is to try to persuade UK universities to take any of these issues seriously – but if I get a chance I’ll try the idea out next time I’m in a suitable meeting.

  27. raygirvan said,

    February 9, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    > … Here’s an inspiring poem from their homepage:

    Even the poetry seems to have a bowel-obsessed subtext:

    there is hesitancy,
    always ineffectiveness.

    the moment one definitely commits oneself,
    then Providence moves too.

    A whole stream of events
    issues from the decision

  28. apothecary said,

    February 9, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Is it just a British thing, or more generally Anglo-Saxon to be obsessed with bowel function? Lots of patent meds from years ago to the present have a purgative effect. I’m sure there’s a sociological treatise to be written here (if it hasn’t been already) linking TAPL, colonic irrigation, and such 19th Century delights as Carter’s Little Liver Pills, ENO’s Fruit Salts and, of course, Beecham’s Pills.

    Me, I remember having to learn how to tell the difference between two different species of senna by the shape of the pods (I am not that ancient an apothecary), thus perfectly equipping me for a career in modern pharmacy

  29. Dr Aust said,

    February 9, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Yes, we Brits are very keen on “staying regular”.

    Mrs Dr Aust tells me that when she arrived in the UK from Germany to work in hospital she was given an extensive list of picturesque English-language euphemisms that the patients might use to convey information about their bowels (among other things).

    A favourite related line, taken from Michael O’Donnell’s excellent “Medicine’s Strangest Cases”:

    – recalls the 60s seaside landlady who would say grace as follows:

    “For what we are about to receive, may it pass through us peacefully”

  30. raygirvan said,

    February 9, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    > Is it just a British thing, or more generally Anglo-Saxon to be obsessed with bowel function?

    Hard to say. Purgatives have been big in the pharmacopoeias of many ancient cultures too: Egypt, Rome, China.

  31. Danivon said,

    February 10, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    I thought that the Dutch were so obsessed that they had little shelves in their toilets so that they could check the state of their business before flushing it away.

    We just like saying words like ‘poo’, ‘bum’ and ‘wee’. Before collapsing in laughter like a 5 year old…

  32. Dr Aust said,

    February 10, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    “I thought that the Dutch were so obsessed that they had little shelves in their toilets so that they could check the state of their business before flushing it away”

    – ditto the Germans – or at least so I used to think. But after living with a German I have now been informed that this is nothing to do with inspection but is instead to ensure that letting go (as it were) does not produce “splashback” onto one’s rear end.

    The ability to inspect is simply an added bonus, although it could explain why TAPL is looking to these continental markets…

    BTW , Aust Jr. (aged 32 months) is totally obsessed with the Scrubs song about Ms McKeith’s favorite “diagnostic” indicator:

    – we’re hoping it’s just a phase she”ll grow out of.

    – Aust Jr, I mean. I think it’s too late for Gillian.

  33. motmot said,

    February 11, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Howard, what’s your website (post 51)? The page linked to from Google is redacted to the point of uselessness: The complainant, the subject, their lawyers and the website address have all been removed. And you can’t even leave comments! You’ll be glad to know that it’s still number two (!) result when searching on Yahoo, though.

  34. indaba said,

    February 14, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    OK I’m new here and came in through the great article on this woman on the Guardian website. I have to say that I find her grotesque and her views alarming. I also detest her use of the “Dr.” title for her spurious PhD unforgiveable as it can mislead certain people into thinking that she knows what she is talking about. If I had my way she would be banned from any television appeareances and if possible from ever talking to anyone again!
    I did some digging for myself into that so-called PhD and found this gem from her website:

    “The College [Clayton] is now accredited by the State of Alabama Department of Post-Secondary Education, a government body.”

    errr sorry but no it isn’t. The relevant Alabama website only says that the colelge is licensed (their spelling) and that

    “The license is issued to operate in the State of Alabama AND IS NOT ASSOCIATED WITH ACCREDITATION” (their caps).

    Even clayton college doesn’t say that the State of Alabama Department of Post-Secondary Education has accredited them Only that:

    “Clayton College is accredited by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and the American Naturopathic Medical Accreditation Board. These are private, professional associations that offer accreditation in naturopathy and other areas of natural health. Both are private accrediting associations designed to meet the needs of non–traditional education and are not affiliated with any government agency.”

    Doesn’t that mean she’s lying on her website? If so is there anything we can do about it to get this terrible woman out for the spotlight?


    Adrian PhD (That’s a real one, worked for with hard work, study, sleepless nights, worry and coffee. And from a real university. Oh yes and in a real subject (Astronomy))

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