Post #350: “If you think I have been overly critical, I would invite you to notice that they win”

This is our 350th post on HolfordWatch. Over the course of these posts, we have found a number of inaccuracies in Holford’s self-presentation and many serious errors in his work. These errors overwhelmingly remain uncorrected or inadequately corrected, and Holford has failed to respond to almost all of the issues raised (what responses we have had from Holford are not at all convincing). However, we would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Patrick Holford: despite embarrassingly poor-quality work, an inaccurate CV and very public demolitions of his research, Patrick Holford has achieved a great deal in his career, in academia and in the media.

While we have been running this blog, Holford managed to sell his Health Products for Life business to Biocare (owned by Neutrahealth, who 30% owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals) for £464,000, and currently works as Head of Science and Education at Biocare. We have ethical quibbles about taking money from the pharmaceutical industry – we don’t do it – but careers in this industry are competitive, and Holford should be congratulated for getting so much money from Biocare (and thus, indirectly, from Elder Pharmaceuticals).

Holford should also be congratulated for having his application to be a visiting professor at Teesside University approved. Despite the massive – and publicly discussed – errors in Holford’s work and inaccuracies in his CV, Teesside were happy to offer him a professorial post. Holford has recently resigned but, given the quality of his work, should have a real sense of achievement that he gained a professorial post in the first place.

Holford’s pundit brand equity and reputational resilience are remarkable. Despite ASA rulings against his companies and extensive criticism in the Guardian, Telegraph, Private Eye, Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge book and online, Holford is still widely presented as a nutritional expert by certain parts of the media and he is given prominent platforms to offer his advice (often inaccurate) on a range of serious medical conditions. Despite Holford featuring prominently in a BBC documentary on Lifestyle Nutritionists – with the eminent nutritionist Prof Tom Sanders assessing the poor quality of Holford’s research in a way that would leave many of us sobbing in a corner and swearing never to write again – Biocare’s Head of Science and Education continues his media and research careers undaunted.

Holford is also founder and CEO of the charity Food for the Brain: this charity has achieved massive media coverage, was planning to work with Teesside University (although it now looks like this won’t come to fruition), has ‘approved’ University catering facilities (step forward Bath and Edinburgh) and is currently advertising for an MSc student. Despite a number of concerns about its research (we spent 10 posts outlining some of the problems with the Report that is its most prominent research output) and its health advice (they modified their advice after HolfordWatch pointed out that it could be harmful to children), Food for the Brain should be congratulated for the fact that it is still going strong. Did I mention that we’re talking about the health of (often vulnerable) children here, and that Food for the Brain have carried out – and seem likely to continue carrying out – research on vulnerable children and adults?

Some people have complained that we have been unduly harsh on Holford. However, at this point it’s worth quoting Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (p. 160),

If you think I have been overly critical, I would invite you to notice that they win.

Holford is – notwithstanding the fact that his research and advice is riddled with embarrassingly serious errors, and that there have been regulatory rulings against his companies – quite able to work successfully with those in the CAM and pharmaceutical industries, to maintain an impressive media profile, to gain support from various sectors of academia, and to be involved in research on (and offer health advice to) a wide range of people. This is really quite an achievement.

We might be right a higher percentage of the time than Holford but – on media profile and profit – Holford clearly wins. And it won’t end here. Despite a number of honourable exceptions, registered dietitians and serious academic nutritionists largely fail to challenge the rise of ‘alternative’ nutrition: as Goldacre argues in Bad Science (p. 315) those in the ‘alternative’ health industry now

have almost full spectrum dominance.

If ‘nutritionism’ has not already been reduced to a type of ‘alternative’ therapy rather than a serious field of academic research, it soon will be. If ‘alternative’ nutritionists have not already usurped dietitians as the first point of call when members of the public have questions about nutrition and health, this is going to come pretty soon.

So, why do we carry on? Well, aside from suffering from an unfortunate compulsion to point out when someone is wrong on the Internet, we do have a couple of things in the pipeline – so it will be interesting to see where we stand in another year. At least, we hope we can help to prevent ‘alternative’ nutrition from winning too quickly.

As ‘alternative’ nutrition continues to expand – which it will – so does the size of the audience to engage with: if even a small proportion of those who read Holford’s sciency health advice in the mainstream media and elsewhere are persuaded to reconsider after reading this site, that will still be a worthwhile achievement.

A final point to note is that, as the ‘alternative’ nutrition industry goes from strength to strength, it may increasingly attract the attention of critical bloggers, journalists, politicians, academics and dietitians. As recent market events have made reminded us, large organisations can come apart remarkably quickly, especially when their work lacks any solid foundation.

So, once again, our congratulations to Patrick Holford. It will be interesting to see how long this winning streak can last.

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20 Comments

Filed under Ben Goldacre, Food for the brain, Food for the brain foundation, patrick holford, University of Teesside

20 responses to “Post #350: “If you think I have been overly critical, I would invite you to notice that they win”

  1. UK dietitian

    Bravo Holfordwatch for your sterling work along the way. But remember that for every 100 vulnerable individual duped into buying into Holfords nutribabble and spending nutripounds on nutritherapies, at least 98 of them will realise they’ve been duped by his nutrihype. Its a diminishing market, hence the reason for Holford’s agility in leaping from NO! to cancer, through arthritis, Alzheimers, Mental health, Autism, etc etc etc
    Theres a book out there for a healthy life that needs writing and the title is easy:
    ‘Say NO to Patrick Holford’

  2. congratulations on this stunning and unparalleled body of work. The Internet must be both a blessing and a terrible curse for the likes of Holford. A sales channel and a thorn in his side.

  3. Claire

    Your fastidious dissection of the multiple instances of bad thinking in your chosen oeuvre are fantastically useful – I have pointed more than a few vicitims of nutri-nonsense in your direction.

    And the miniblog is a joy. Where else could one come across a site (Rubor Dolor Calor Tumor) and learn:

    “…We live in a thin haze of our own fecal flora and the fecal flora of the humans and animals around us…” (Caniculares Dies)

  4. Wulfstan

    One can almost hear your cries of “Oh, well-played, sir” as you pursue your corinthian ideals.

    Congratulations on the relentless scholarship that has gone into so many of your posts.

    Would it be a stupidly large undertaking to collect all the errors into one document and hand them over to Holford and his publishers?

    About that miniblog: I enjoy it, but the phrase “haze of our own fecal flora” is playing in my head as relentlessly as Birdie Song.

  5. Thanks. It would be interesting to know how those who’ve tried ‘alternative’ nutritionism and not got better come to view it in future…

    Yes – re a haze of fecal flora, some things do tend to stick in the memory…

  6. Claire

    @ Wulfstan & jonhw – perhaps you had better not read this RDCT post . I’m still scratching.

    Going anecdotal, reactions I’ve encountered from people who have tried ‘alternative nutritionism’ for various chronic conditions and found it wanting include: relief that they don’t have to sustain an expensive regime of exclusion diets and supplements,;embarrassment at being ‘taken in’ by plausible people lacking officially recognised training in human nutrition; but also frustration that a delay in being able to access a good quality medical diagnosis led them, in the first place, to explore these alternatives.

  7. Wulfstan

    Head louse alert to anyone thinking of following Claire’s link.

    I think that Claire is right in that the issue of people resorting to biomed approaches is not essentially that ‘alternative’ is their preference but it maybe expresses a difficult or fraught relationship with a GP. Or desperation at the lack of a diagnosis or treatment protocol to follow that might give people a sense of greater control.

    I certainly don’t know how that might be approached by the NHS. But, it looks like a consumer-led PCT might be persuaded to offer dietary programmes to patients because it would look like they were ‘doing something’. Either that or they will come up with more and more ways of allowing GPs to slough heartsink patients.

    Given that Holford and his high profile endorsers seem to recommend pretty much universal supplementation and extensive testing, I wonder what the cost of that would be to the NHS?

  8. Carole Hart

    I have never read such a pile of CRAP in my whole life.
    Just answer this ?? Why are so many people abandoning allopathically trained people.
    Why?? Because it doesn’t have all the answers. Isn’t it time we looked at INTEGRATED healthcare and learned to work together instead of constantly slagging complementary practices. You should be ashamed.

  9. Sam

    I have never commented here before but after reading this post and the ensuing comments, I felt I had to.

    Carole, your use of question marks after ‘just answer this’ is entirely inappropriate.

  10. Wulfstan

    Needless aggression, capitalisation, and complete lack of references yet Carole Hart is attempting to lecture others on the appropriateness of shame.

    You couldn’t make up some of your extra-special commenters – truth is stranger than fiction.

    Would I be off-track if I guessed that Carole Hart didn’t trouble herself to read that many posts?

  11. Claire

    Wulfstan is of course right to worry about the cost implications for the NHS of people who insist on investigations and consultations despite there being no evidence of any obvious pathology. But when I referred to frustration at delayed diagnosis, I was thinking more of a couple of people (one a relative, one a friend) who now have confirmed diagnoses of coeliac disease, but ony after several years of being told their symptoms were caused by stress, indigestion, IBS etc. Of course, the (inevitable) nutritionist advice to cut out wheat eased the symptoms but the underlying condition remained undiagnosed.

  12. pauline

    Yes, as usual, this site throws up a load of deluded rubbish. Locked in a mind set of self importance and closed mindedness.

  13. gimpy

    You’re an inspiration to us all. Long may you keep it up. And should you find yourself flagging I’m sure there is a vitamin complex somebody is flogging for the occasion.

  14. Wulfstan

    I paragraphed my last comment badly.

    I have a lot of sympathy for people who fail to obtain a diagnosis so seek solutions in the wrong places. A friend has a history of migraine and gut problems and felt that she was treated with disdain by her GPs.

    She tried a lot of nutritional solutions, all of which helped a little and then failed. She didn’t obtain a diagnosis until recurrent miscarriages sparked an investigation that culminated in the diagnosis of antiphospholipid syndrome.

    I have no idea how the NHS can reconcile the problem of limited resources and the dangers associated with over-testing with the indisputable fact that some patients have an unduly delayed diagnosis. I don’t have a feeling for how many people this is true for – or how you draw the demarcation between someone treated as a heartsink patient who later has an explanatory diagnosis.

  15. sarah

    thats a bit anecdotal

  16. Claire

    @ Wulfstan, I think all healthcare systems are grappling with the demand/resource problem you identify and real solutions don’t suggest themselves easily. I’ve seen a pair of recent articles, (full text available) one from the perspective of the so-called ‘difficult patient’ and one from that of a doctor trying to care for difficult patients. It’s in the context of the US system but interestingly both seem to see part of the answer not in ever more tests and investigations but in improving the doctor-patient relationship.

  17. Acleron

    Carole Hart. ‘Allopath’ is a word coined by Hahnemann to distinguish himself from medics 200 years ago, it is now used by quacks as a pejorative. The phrase you are seeking is ‘evidence based medicine, EBM’. No EBM doctor claims to know it all. No EBM based doctor claims that all the treatments that are used are perfect. All EBM based doctors will change their views based on new and convincing evidence. The complementary etc people have none of these virtues. They promulgate treatments with no evidence, so why should they be shown any respect?

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