Gillian McKeith is probably the best-known “nutritionist” in the UK. She has a popular TV show, “You Are What You Eat”, along with a magazine and associated product range.
She’s very popular – but she’s also come in for a lot of criticism, mostly about her use of the title “doctor”, and some of her scientific claims. Should you be taking advice from this woman?
The TV show
If you’re not familiar with McKeith’s methods and dietary philosophy, here’s a brief summary of her TV show (quote taken from The vegetable monologues in The Observer)
Even by the uniquely peculiar standards of TV makeover shows, it makes for extraordinary viewing. McKeith … travels the land in search of fatties and, once inside their homes, plays a kind of nutritional David to their Goliaths, wildly berating them for their grotesque diets. Having raided their fridges and examined their stools (she is, she cheerfully admits, obsessed by ‘poo – even as a child, I would always look’), she then sticks them on one of her regimes, which tend not to involve the kind of foodstuffs you can pick up down at Budgens: quinoa, seaweed, miso, millet and lots of aduki beans.
I remember watching one of the very early episodes (possibly the first one) of this show years ago. I found it uncomfortable viewing. McKeith’s style is aggressive and dictatorial, and she came across as unkind and severe. The dietary regime she advocates is, to my mind, overly faddish. Yes, most of her victims could do with eating more fruit and vegetables, more wholegrains, and less junk – but those changes alone would be enough for great results.
Here’s a quote, from an article in the Daily Mail, from one of the participants on You Are What You Eat:
I expected Gillian McKeith to give me sound advice and work out a healthy diet I could actually follow. I like things like porridge, wholemeal bread, poached eggs and vegetables, so it shouldn’t have been too difficult.
As it was, she demoralised me totally. She said my diet was like a spread at a children’s party and slapped a five-year-old’s birthday badge on me.
Then she gave me a balloon – which I held like a muggins – put two drinking straws underneath it and said: “That’s what you look like!” I ended up in tears.
Then she gave me a completely unrealistic eating plan which involved very little meat or fish and lots of food that disagreed with my system like avocado – which makes me sick – and cucumber.
I had to boil mung beans all day long, which took hours, made the flat smell horrible and tasted more like the gravel at the bottom of a fish tank than food.
Given that being obese may be a symptom of underlying psychological problems – such as low self esteem, anxiety, even clinical depression – McKeith’s style seems ill-advised and counter-productive at best, and quite possibly very harmful and damaging to vulnerable people.
Is Gillian McKeith a “Doctor”?
A lot of the controversy surrounding McKeith has been about her use of the title “Doctor”. She is not a medical doctor, though initially many viewers of her program were under the impression that she was. She has a PhD, but this was gained by a distance learning program from the American College of Holistic Nutrition (now the Clayton College of Natural Health), a non-accredited college – which means that in some states, a holder of a degree from there would not be able to practice as a clinical nutritionist.
In 2007, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) investigated McKeith’s use of the title “Doctor” on her products – and she agreed to drop it (see ASA site for details – select “Informally Resolved Complaints”.)
What about her science?
In 2006, McKeith was forced to remove two “Fast Formula” products, which promised to enhance sexual intercourse, from the market – you can read the press release here. The MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) found that she was “advertising and selling goods without legal authorisation whilst making medicinal claims about their efficacy.”
Ben Goldacre (a Cambridge University educated doctor who debunks Bad Science claims) wrote in The Guardian that:
McKeith is a menace to the public understanding of science. She seems to misunderstand not nuances, but the most basic aspects of biology – things that a 14-year-old could put her straight on.
I don’t care what kind of squabbles McKeith wants to engage in over the technicalities of whether a non-accredited correspondence-course PhD from the US entitles you, by the strictest letter of the law, to call yourself “doctor”: to me, nobody can be said to have a meaningful qualification in any biology-related subject if they make the same kind of basic mistakes made by McKeith.
McKeith’s claims might sound good, but read What’s wrong with Gillian McKeith: Goldacre goes into considerable detail about the nonsense claims she makes (such as claiming that DNA is only present in growing cells).
Although some of the advice McKeith gives is good, a lot of it is scientifically inaccurate. For realistic healthy eating advice, check out: