Radio 4 The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists

March 25th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, history of quackery, nutritionists | 31 Comments »

Well, very excitingly – to me – the first half of my two-parter on Radio 4 went out over the airwaves last night. You can listen to it here:

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Part 2 is here.

It’s Radio 4’s “Choice of the Day” for Monday, and Phil Daoust made it pick of the day.

“Food is now a modern obsession,” says Ben Goldacre. “We’re constantly bombarded with ‘miracle cures’ and sinister hidden scares from the world of nutrition. Bacon causes cancer! Fish oils will make your child an angel! But where do these ideas come from, and are they really based on science?” Anyone familiar with Goldacre’s Bad Science column in this paper will know
the answers: a) charlatans and cranks; and b) you’re having a laugh, aren’t
you? But he has a lot of fun driving the point home in The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists (8pm, Radio 4). You’ll particularly enjoy the segment about John Harvey Kellogg, the enemaobsessed cornflake-inventor. Who’d have guessed you could put milk up your bottom as well as on your cereal?

The second part will star comedy vitamin pill salesman Patrick Holford and will be, I can promise you, very good fun.

Since the Listen Again link has died after a week, here is an mp3 of the programme.

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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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

31 Responses

  1. perspix said,

    March 25, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Link duly clicked, Ben. Unfortunately it requires (contaminating one’s PC with) Real Player to listen.

    But keep up the good work!

  2. chapstick said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Try downloading real alternative perspix 🙂

  3. perspix said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Thanks chapstick! Just saw the link in the hadacol thread. Installed and working and not a foistware in sight.

  4. 1trickpony said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:53 am

    And for those who want the mp3 (for outdoor listening for example):
    click here:
    and then here:

  5. EnglishInBaltimore said,

    March 25, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Ben, you sound about twelve.

    Really good program though.

  6. gonzo said,

    March 25, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Bacon causes cancer!

    This silly idea comes from Harvard Scientists, that well known coven of charlatans and cranks;

    “Nitrosamines, chemicals which are often found in processed meats and in particularly high levels in bacon, are known to be carcinogenic in high quantities.”

    Or perhaps it was the BBC making up the news again

    In truth it’s not the bacon, it’s the sodium nitrite (E251) that’s added to prevent ‘Clostridium botulinum’, a bateria causing botulism.

    Although N-nitrosamines are known carcinogens, their levels in cooked bacon are thought to be tolerable in humans.,M1

    Needless to say, I eat bacon rarely, even though I’m told it’s safe.

    One of the people pushing the idea that fish oil may have a calming effect on children is that well-known charlatan (no disrespect)Professor Lord Robert Winston. He is ” one of the world’s most respected medical academics and researcher of the human reproductive system.”!

    In 2004 he published research on the subject of fish oil and children.

    The subject was covered in “BBC’s Child Of Our Time documentary”.

    Ah!, could it be the BBC pushing these stange ideas again.

    Look Harvey Kellog had some very strange ideas and the idea that his techniques are still employed today is just plain misrepresentation.

    I listend to the “show” and I was dismayed that there were no Nutritional Therapists there to defend themselves. It made the attack somewhat one-sided.

    The concept that food was “never better” than we’ve have it now is also proposterous. I thought Widdowson and McCance were made to sound foolish and yet their publication “the Composition of Foods” is a well respected publication detailing food composition. Comparisons of successive editions reveals the declining nutrients in our food.

  7. Jo said,

    March 25, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    When’s part two being broadcast? Safe to assume next Monday? I only ask as I’m adding this to the despatches for a current awareness service 🙂

    This is an alternative link for those who don’t like Real Player:

    I usually use the VLC player for all things media myself…


  8. mole said,

    March 25, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    I really enjoyed listening to the program last night, it made me smile, CNN managed to remove the smile this morning with more reporting of the rise in unvaccinated children in the US:( At least there are some small packets of intelligence available through a mass media channel, keep up the good work and I look forward to the second part.

  9. used to be jdc said,

    March 25, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Gonzo wrote:

    The concept that food was “never better” than we’ve have it now is also proposterous.

    The Guardian article you link to points out that “the reseach was conducted by David Thomas, a chiropractor and nutritionist who prescribes and sells mineral supplements”.
    Interesting stuff.

    The article also points out the following:

    The research has, however, been challenged by the food and farming industries which argue that the testing methods have changed. They also say that huge changes in the varieties grown and the ways in which food is transported and stored, make direct comparison difficult.

    (And quotes Mike Attenborough of the MLC as saying “If these figures were true we’d expect to see a lot of anaemic cows wondering around”)

  10. gonzo said,

    March 25, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Hi used to be jdc & emilypk

    I take the points.

    However, Just because Thomas is a chiropractor and nutritionist does not automatically make his research invalid. I’ve seen reported the erosion of trace mineals from the land in many places (quoting W &McC). I’ve also seen a government paper that says pretty much the same.
    Perhaps measurement methods have improved. Monoculture requires fertilizer which usually contains K,P,N maybe Ca, but not Zn,I,Fe,Se,Mo,Mg,Mn etc, so I still suspect a gradual erosion.
    I tried to find a better reference. The following book by Elmer G. Heinrichcontains a detailed analysis of W&McC comparissons 194-1991

    The National Diet & Nutrition Survey: adults aged 19 to 64 years showed a slight decline in key nutrient intake such as iodine and zinc between 1986-2002. This document also indicates that some factions of the population (probably more than you’d think) consume less than recommended levels of certain nutrients (and supplement consumption) is taken into account.

    The wide variety of foods from abroad does provide increased possible nutrient sources. However, it is does come with increased pesticide residues and preservatives to extend its shelf-life /air miles.

    So I still think nutrient intake is on the decline and it was not sparkling to begin with.

  11. perspix said,

    March 25, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    I find it easy to beleive better food *choices* are available to us now than, say 50 years ago when boiled potatoes often came in tins. But perhaps not 100 years ago when potatoes came from a local farm or one’s back yard and tomatos came from plants grown in naturaly fertilised soil, not roofing insulation. The evidence for nutrient depletion is persuasive if not conclusive. But that should be no ammunition for the pro-biotic medicine show quacks.

    The point Ben makes well is that (empiricaly grounded) messages about bacon may indeed be true but the media/culture likes drama and the bit about the risk being marginal is neglected. And that’s where the quacks feed. Making that unjustified cognitive connection between smoking causing cancer and bacon causing cancer.

    I’m more concerned about the general accumulation of sub-lethal toxins in the food supply than carcinogenic bacon. The nitrites are not increasing but the PCB’s, Flourides etc are.

  12. gonzo said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Hi Top,

    No I did listen to the program on the net. I thought it was more about riduculing nutritional therapy. If you always wait for double blind intervention studies to prove everything, you’ll wait forever. I take your point that trying to generalise from the particular is not logically valid, (except when “the establishment” do it). Read the opening post, is asks the question “But where do these ideas come from, and are they really based on science?” I was merely try to answer that question. You then have to ask “what is science?”

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 25, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    just to be clear, for the nutritionists who are upset that their uninterrupted decades of unchallenged hegemony in the mainstream media should be briefly questioned by a few leading profs in a 27 minute radio show:

    i certainly don’t think you need to have randomised controlled trials before you can say that there is a relationship between a risk exposure and a risk outcome, that is a ludicrous proposition; but i do think it is very interesting (as do many listeners) that the evidence on the specific details nothing like as clear cut as some people claim it to be. many even claim that there ARE trials for their favourite commodifiable health interventions when there are not, which is childish pill salesmanship.

    i also think it’s very interesting that dietary intervention studies have negative results.

    in fact, many of the reasons why they have negative results speak to the wider issues in public health of getting people to change behaviour as individuals or as populations. in an RCT on diet, the people in the control group will change their behaviours simply by virtue of finding themselves in a community with heightened awareness of their health; and on the other side of the coin, the intervention group will not change their diet as much as you want them to.

    i’m not going to deliver an undergraduate lecture in public health but a lot of the major and important changes come not at the individual and commodifiable level – which i agree is superficially attractive – but with societal changes: dealing with food deserts for the car-less, education, promoting active lives, exercise-friendly cities, work life balance, labelling, taxing junk differently, vending machines, and all the other things you can do to make the water of human choices and behaviour flow downhill more healthily.

    or you could buy/sell some hadacol, and have a disproportionate freak out about one type of food each month. whatever floats your boat. you really can do whatever you like, but you can’t expect other people to play along with your claims about the evidence, and get huffy when they point out the obvious holes.

  14. jodyaberdein said,

    March 25, 2008 at 10:54 pm


    What is Science indeed?

    ‘Harvard Scientists’ : argument by authority, also straw man.

    ‘Winston’: argument by authority, ‘research’: n=2 uncontrolled trial, article also mentions Dr Richardson, see badscience under Durham schools.

    ‘No nutritionists to defend’: balance doesn’t cut it with scientific debate.

    ‘Declining nutrients’, useful vagueness, potential straw man.

    ‘Trace mineral erosion’: straw man

    Focus on micronutrient content alone: I’d suggest this is more an argumentum ad auditores, also instance instancia, but perhaps fundamentally just straw man.

    ‘Prove’, well need I say more?

  15. gonzo said,

    March 26, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Is it valid to say cigarettes cause cancer, simply because they overload the body with carcinogens. Bacon equally can produce carcinogens, but by nowhere near as many as cigarettes. The risks are very much lower. It’s just semantics. “bacon causes cancer – but the risk is very low”. Cigarettes cause cancer, and the risks are very high. The statement “bacon causes cancer” is valid, but a lot of qualification is left out.

  16. gonzo said,

    March 26, 2008 at 2:12 am


    The first post said…

    “Bacon causes cancer! Fish oils will make your child an angel! But where do these ideas come from, and are they really based on science?” Anyone familiar with Goldacre’s Bad Science column in this paper will know
    the answers: a) charlatans and cranks; and b) you’re having a laugh, aren’t
    you? ”

    I merely pointed out that people who we would not expect to be charlatans and cranks supported these ideas.

    Which position did I misrepresent?

  17. Dr Aust said,

    March 26, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    No – “people who we would not expect to be charlatans and cranks” have said something (often extremely preliminary) which is extrapolated ludicruously, and taken utterly out of context, to give the impression to the worried-but-poorly-understanding that it “supported these ideas”.

    That is the difference.

    This is what the Lifestyle Nutrition people do as a matter of course, since their living depends on it. And due to the depressing credulity of much of the mass media, they typically get pretty much a free hand to promote this claptrap in newspaper “health” sections, on non-science or pretend-science TV shows etc etc.

    Under the circumstances I can’t see how offering the Nutritionistas a platform to continue to obfuscate their sleight-of-hand with evidence would have been relevant on Monday. What’s 27 minutes of Ben & Co against the number of airtime minutes Patrick Holford clocks up on the breakfast-time TV sofas in a year? Or “Dr” McKeith?

  18. emilypk said,

    March 26, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Ultimately the plight of a few vegetable nutrients, which may not be great, is a small part of diet. As it happens I think some vegeatble could do to be farmed less intensively and ripened more in the field. But a hundred years ago my ancestors had to eat truly heroic amounts of potatoes just to stay alive and working–and had access to very little else.

    As a normal healthy adult I now have my choice of potatoes grown many ways, and a startling array of other things produced in all sorts of ways all around the world–including meat raised on pasture and veggies raised organically etc. Exercising that choice well I can have a near-perfect diet delivered literally to my door. Somewhat counter to the alarmist claims I am a normal weight, healthy and vigorous based on eating food and drinking tap water.

    I think the diet I get is vastely superior to my bog dwelling ancestors whoe were driven out to found my current family line at the opposite end of the earth by, well, a famine. The worst I can lay at its door is an impending painful dental surgery.

  19. ralaven said,

    March 28, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Pathos you are over interpreting. There is nothing in Ben’s statement that implies anything about therapists, they arer two nutritional statements that are in the public domain

    Using my Google-fu I have found: Food Additives Cause Cancer

    Food Additives Cause Cancer. Bacon, Sausage, Hot Dogs and Processed Meats Hike Cancer Risk by 6700%:

    Frequent or excessive consumption of Bacon increases the risk of Cancer:

    I think the latter two even fall under the domain of nutritional therapy!

  20. ralaven said,

    March 28, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Should have said “might”. I don’t want to get into an argument about what ‘nutritional therapy’ is.

    Good programm Ben – Thanks

  21. briantist said,

    March 28, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Great show… Probably should have finished by breakfast before listening about the colonic irrigation.

    I love the Radio 4 manor of not actually mentioning the actual orifices.

    Thanks.. looking forward to part II. How long before your weekly show?

  22. Pathos said,

    March 28, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Hi ralaven,

    Thanx for the links, although the first one has already evaporated!

    “There is nothing in Ben’s statement that implies anything about therapists”

    After careful reading, I have to agree, but why pluck these statements out of the air and use them in this context?

    Nutritional Therapy


  23. Dr* T said,

    March 28, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Nice link Pathos.

    “Hering’s law of cure is the basis of all healing in Homeopathy. It demonstrates how the body can heal itself given the right circumstances. The theory is that as we go through life we will accumulate toxins, and when that toxic load gets too big a burden, we develop health problems”

    Then germ theory came along and the world moved on.

  24. gonzo said,

    March 28, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Dr T.

    I do not see germ theory and HLC as mutually exclusive. There are clearly many diseases where germs are not a factor and many of “no known cause”.

    The many advances in medical science have allowed us to lose sight of the view that health depends (inter alia)on meeting nutritional requirements and continual detoxification and excretion of toxins – although most people in resonable health can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous diet and lifestyle for some considerable time (some for a life-time!).

  25. ralaven said,

    March 28, 2008 at 6:22 pm a review of how wonderful fish oil was for a child and mentions Robert Winston.

    The two statements are clear expressions of how scientific research when translated for public consumption becomes simplified with both benefits and problems over-stated.

  26. EnglishInBaltimore said,

    March 28, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    You’re all missing the key point
    Ben is clearly Dougy Houser MD.

  27. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 29, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Or “This Omega 3 pill will improve your child’s behaviour, and that’s a fish oil.”

  28. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 30, 2008 at 9:52 am

    By the way, at last sight the BBC provides a link to a less… personally interested… version of RealPlayer.

    No podcast though? Oh well.

  29. evidencebasedeating said,

    March 30, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    great link, Pathos.
    So much nutritional woo, hard to know where to start.

    love the comment “When the body is alkaline, colds, flu and mucus cannot survive” at

    Hmm. Guess all those snivelling commuters running their ideal blood pH of 7.35 -7.45 haven’t understood the concept.

    Its nutrition..

    But not as we know it…

  30. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 1, 2008 at 2:39 am

    By the way, should digestive biscuits be in there somewhere?

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