Holfordisms

Here we highlight Holford’s Howlers: remarkable mistakes have been brought to his attention, on this blog and elsewhere. Most of these he has – to the best of our knowledge – yet to retract, though if we list any Howlers where we know that Holford did revise his claims in response to Holford Watch criticism we will make this clear. There’s a lot of content that needs to go on this page – some of it already on the blog, some of it we haven’t got round to writing yet – so it will be very much under construction for some time.

  • Allergies/Intolerances. Patrick Holford has written at length about issues of food allergy and intolerance: it is one of the more long-standing and ill-founded Holford Myths. Unfortunately, he often makes the basic error of conflating allergy and intolerance. Holford also recommends unproven food intolerance tests and allergy/intolerance treatments.
  • Antioxidants. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) metanalysis (Volume 285(1), 3 January 2001, pp 67-72) showed that taking certain antioxidant vitamin pills may increase mortality. Holford issued a ‘critique’ of this study, making a number of basic errors – including, apparently, confusion as to what constitutes a randomised trial.
  • Autism. This seems to be a special interest of Holford’s, and there are far too many autism-related Holford Howlers for us to summarise here. One of the worse issues, though, is MMR – Holford’s account of the ‘evidence’ of a link between MMR and autism is horrifyingly shoddy. The treatments that Holford recommends are also worrying: he believes that the off-label use of secretin (a drug that trials show to perform no better than, or slightly worse than, placebo) is “worth considering”.
  • Competing Interests. Holford is worried by the way competing interests can distort science: for example, he falsely accuses Prof. Colquhoun of having competing interests in the pharmaceutical industry, and argues that drug companies sometimes “set up…trials, pay the researchers who conduct them and then sometimes refuse to publish the data if it is not favourable”. However, he has previously neglected to declare his competing interests in curcumin sales when writing a BMJ rapid response. Although Holford argues that he just benefits “modestly…from supplement sales”, his Health Products for Life company (which sells supplements) was reportedly bought by NeutraHealth for a total consideration of £464,000.
  • Food for the Brain (FFTB). Holford is CEO of this charity, which is working to introduce ‘nutritional’ ideas into Britain’s schools. While Holford Watch is delighted to see initiatives to improve the diets of children, we fear that the charity’s unscientific approach and practices, their associations with very controversial sources of medical opinion, and the links between FFTB and supplement businesses may subvert these aims and even do children harm. We have concerns about the quality of Food for the Brain’s nutritional advice, and the quality and ethics of the FFTB school projects reported on Tonight with Trevor McDonald. We are also unconvinced that FFTB is an appropriate recipient of four figure donations from public funds.
  • HIV/AIDS. Holford acknowledges that “there is no evidence” that Vitamin C is more effective than AZT at treating AIDS. However, this does not stop him from claiming that “vitamin C has been shown to outperform AZT in lab studies” (in an article where he also argues that Vitamin C is a promising treatment for bird flu in humans). Given that Holford regularly speaks in South Africa, he might like to clarify his position on HIV/AIDS.
  • Maths. Holford sometimes seems to struggle with numbers. Holford appears to believe that the amount of fish oil and mercury in our diets are very important; however, at least two editions of his Optimum Nutrition for the Mind book have got the calculations of the mercury:omega 3 ration in different fishes badly wrong, at a very basic level. Likewise, when evaluating the (dis)benefits of statins Holford makes serious mistakes when handling of the Number Needed to Treat figures – leading him to some surprising, and unjustified, conclusions.
  • QLink Pendants. These pendants are sold as protection against the supposed risk of EMR. Holford sounds very keen on them: he argues that “The scientific proof is deeply impressive…This revolutionary pendant provides continuous support against EMR via a microchip which resonates at the same frequencies as the body’s own energetic field.” Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, when Ben Goldacre looked inside a QLink he found it did not emit any interesting ‘frequencies’ and contains a “coil connected to nothing. And a zero-ohm resistor, which costs half a penny, and is connected to nothing.” Health Products for Life previously (though no longer) had these on sale for £69.99.
  • Vaccination. This is appears to be another special interest of Holford’s. Unfortunately, this interest – while it does lead Holford to be pretty sceptical about vaccination – often does not extend to providing his readers with reliable sources of information. The type of “hard evidence” offered by Holford includes, for example, a reference to a (broken) URL, which appears to have previously hosted the results of a survey of a relatively small number of members of vaccine and parent groups. On the other hand, while Holford is sceptical about the type of vaccines which can effectively prevent illness, he is more positive about homeopathic meningitis vaccinations (despite the fact that meningitis can kill and there is no good evidence that homeopathic vaccinations work, or even a plausible mechanism through which they might work).

47 responses to “Holfordisms

  1. Pingback: The Mail believes that Holford is an “holistic doctor”: Updated Twice « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  2. Pingback: Patrick Holford, GL Diet and Satiety Plus the Misrepresentation of Some Research: Same Old, Same Old « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  3. GW

    I had heard about Patrick Holford, and was doing some googling to find out if his nutrition principles were sound, safe and reasonable. That was when I found your site.
    “Tremendous”, I thought, “an entire website dedicated to trashing this one guy. If there’s any dirt here, they’ll find it for sure!”
    This “Holfordisms” section seems to be a list of all his transgressions. I enjoyed reading it.

    I want to thank all of you for taking the time off from your work and family lives in order to create and maintain this site.

    I also want to thank you for convincing me that Holford is the real deal, and that his science and ideas can be relied upon to promote better health. I am assured of this conclusion by the fact that you have dedicated your lives to debunking him, as represented in this site, and if this is truly the best of the worst that you can find, then there is clearly very little to shout about.

    Thank you for your contribution, and for your tireless efforts to promote Patrick Holford by showing the public that his worst mistakes are really no big deal. I for one appreciate this, and I want to reassure you that you have not wasted your lives in this pursuit.

    • You do indeed demonstrate the level of appreciation for standards of evidence and science that we associate with fans of Holford…

      We can only assume that you, as a tax-payer, are eager for the day when erroneous advice and unevidenced hair-analysis tests, IgG food ‘allergy’ tests and such are available on the NHS along with recommendations for unsubstantiated supplements.

  4. GW

    dvnutrix:
    Assuredly you have got me wrong – I was no fan of Holford (neither for nor against). However after I spent some time on this site, I was willing to give his principles greater credence.

    To dispense with the irony for a moment, I do believe it bears mentioning that there are lots of people out there giving health advice to the public who should have no business doing so. Many of these people are both praised and debunked in the popular and medical press. However, much of what is said about Holford on this site is trivial compared to what people say about others. For example, the criticism of the Atkins diet (by scientists and public) is ongoing and resounding. There are many such examples.

    People who get known and noticed are bound to attract debunkers and advocates alike. People who delve into cutting-edge areas of research are bound to make some mistakes. The criticism levelled at Holford on this site pales into insignificance when compared with the bulk of negative material surrounding many of his peers. Given that fact, and the fact that this site is so thorough and well-researched, it is plain that Holford’s principles stand up stronger against scrutiny, where others fall down.

    If nothing else, he attracts a better class of debunker :-)

    • You use ‘cutting-edge of research’ in a discussion of Holford – we don’t seem to have got you wrong at all. It is unlikely that Professor Summerbell (inter alia) appreciated the still-standing accusation of lacking integrity because Holford is unable to understand the research that he purports to interpret for his readers. Again, the scale and nature of the mistakes seem irrelevant to you so your closing borders on the nonsensical.

      You have, of course, omitted to comment on whether you deem it appropriate for his inappropriate advice and testing to be introduced into UK schools (as per the FFTB projects) and the NHS (via his IONistas).

      If you have any more comments of a similar nature to make, unless they specifically address a Holfordism, then put them in the Off-Topic section (see comment policy).

  5. Atro

    I have never come across Patrick Holford before, but then i dont tend to waste my time on quacks.

    However, i have just received an email at work advertising some free seminars that my employeer have no doubt paid Mr Holford handsomely to give.

    Needless to say after the discription given in the email about what the seminar will be about, my alarm bells starting ringing. A few seconds later a quick google search brought me to this site and my suspicions were confirmed.

    Needless to say i will be forwarding a link to this website to the people organising these seminars, although i have no doubt it will not have much luck in getting them cancelled.

    • This is getting to be ridiculous. I wonder if the seminars will mention Holford’s support for:
      *vitamin C as a better intervention for Aids than AZT
      *tin-foil conspiracies and regular accusations concerning the integrity of leading researchers
      *Andrew Wakefield despite the extensive criticism of his science
      *his unevidenced assertions about treating addiction
      *vitamin C beyond the scope of the evidence
      *statistical nonsense (as per his FFTB report).
      All of this overlooks the opinion of respected nutrition researchers such as Professor Tom Sanders who assess Holford’s scholarship as of a comparable standard to that on show in features in women’s magazines.

  6. inger

    I believe I have Histadelia,
    I’m looking for dietary information.
    how to reduce the over production of histamines in your diet.
    Thank you

  7. Hi there,

    I’ve been reading Holford’s “Food is better than Medicine”. I am sceptical about his push for nutritional supplements (as these represent a kind of medicine after all) plus his $$$ making website was a big turn off. Nevertheless, as a non-medical person, a lot of what he is saying seems to make sense.

    Your website highlights his lack of formal nutritional qualifications, his undisclosed conflict of interest and his poor use of the scientific reports to justify his position.

    Is there anything you can agree with? Do you see anything redeemable in his recommendations? If not, your own bias must be called into question.

  8. Zen

    I think Holford’s comments are, in general terms, well balanced and probably pretty accurate. Alternative approaches to medical issues have always been seen by the establishment as black-magic and the people running this site are clearly also worried by some ‘truths’ and ‘good practice’ that Holford proposes.

    Strange, is it not, that the owners of this site choose to remain anonomus, even down to the domain ownership.

    If genuine debate was welcomed, surely they’d come out of the closet and announce themselves and their position?

    I wonder if this note will also get moderated out as part of the hidden agenda?

    • How fascinating that you looked, Zen. One wonders why – actually, one doesn’t, having seen the material put out by Holford’s more slavish supporters.

      I’d ask if you could point out any errors in assessing the research other than Holford’s but it’s obvious that you could not. Pretty telling. However, you’re not alone in that – none of your merry band of Holford followers has done that. You might ponder as to why some of Holford’s well-credentialled colleagues/endorsers have not continued their allegiance or support (eg, Dr John Marks, Prof. Jonathan Waxman, Prof Andre Tylee). One might consider that Prof. Cowen’s remarks about the FFTB report that Holford co-authored were less than a ringing endorsement of Holford’s scholarship.

      Do let us know how Holford is really correct about the no. of premature deaths from heart disease; the NNT of 19,600 for statins etc. (as above); food intolerance testing etc. etc.

  9. Zen

    Curious response. Are you just seeking here to question the research and findings of Holford and nutritionists in general? If so, the comments made by the commentator are very general and provide no real counter argument, other than an opposing view to those proposed by Holford who, at least, seems willing and able to put forward alternative solutions for discussions to long-held problems like food intolerance or the impact of food on Autistic patients.

    From a cursory scan around this site, there appears very little new, or old, theories that are supported by real ‘science’ here.

    I have no axe to grind either way here; I’m not in the Nutitionists nor Dietician camp. Are you seeking genuine discussion here or just nutty nutritionist bashing (and Holford in particular)?

    • Perhaps you should read the site more closely. You’ll find plenty of ‘real science’.

      As we make clear in various pages, we do object to ill-advised alternative ‘solutions’ for conditions like autism and food intolerance. We explain why – and justify our objections – in quite some detail.

  10. Cigana

    Dear HolfordWatch,

    I have just got about 3/4 of the way through Holford’s book and thought I’d look him up. I must admit throughout the book I thought I noticed a few inconsistencies, and above all wondered why, if his claims were all true, we (the public) are not aware of them.

    So my question to you is: have I just completely wasted my time, or can I assume a significant proportion of what he’s saying is correct? i.e. should I take his book with a large piece of salt or dismiss all of it?

    For example:
    1. should I eat breakfast one hour after waking or doesn’t it matter?

    2. do scientists believe any vitamins are better for us in doses significantly higher than the RDA?

    3. is it worthwhile taking any of the supplements he advocates?

    4. is GL better than GI as a guide?

    5. is caffeine really as bad as he makes out?

    6. have there been any studies to back up his claims that pesticides in non-organic food relate to ill health?

    7. is it right that certain foods should only be eaten in the absence of others for better digestion?

    etc. etc. I could go on all day but hopefully you get the point. Being a non-expert I am now totally confused as to how much good I can actually take away from what I’ve read and put into practise.

    Thanks!

    • Cigana – we don’t give medical advice on the blog. If there’s anything particular concerning you, you should speak to your doctor or dietitian.

      In terms of healthy diet, for typical adults it’s pretty simple – we like Michael Pollan’s advice to eat food, most of it from plants, not too much. We’d suggest that – unless you have specific health problems – eating a typical healthy diet should be fine. The FSA is a good place to start if you’re looking for general healthy eating advice.

      Try not to worry too much about small things – e.g. eating breakfast is a good thing, but it certainly doesn’t need to be one hour after waking…20 cups of coffee a days is likely a bad idea, but one or two cups won’t kill you…etc. Just try to relax and enjoy a healthy diet. It’s also worth thinking about how different risks in your life compare to one another – e.g. if you smoke, stopping should be a priority.

      Alternative nutritionists like Holford often make healthy eating sound horribly complicated. It shouldn’t be, and eating should be something you can enjoy.

  11. The Food Facts section of the British Dietetic Association is a much cheaper and easier read than anything Mr Holford has produced.

    Some of the factsheets talk about some of the issues you mention.

  12. Cordelia

    I’m a bit worried that GW thinks Holford’s worst mistakes are “nothing to shout about”. Can only assume that either you haven’t read these properly/ at all, or you don’t understand empiricism.

  13. Chris

    Wow. You people seem like you are a set up by the big drug companies to debunk somebody who is doing something for individual’s health you could never dream about. I am not a Holford fanatic….only found out about him a few months ago…and tend to have a mind of my own. In fact, I came across him because I am on a diet that very closely mirrors the one he advocates (one independently formulated…) and I am feeling healthier then I have ever felt in my life.

    I am always suspect of people who are so intent on bringing someone else down, but offer nothing else constructive in its place.

    Also found it interesting…what the previous person wrote about how the owners of this site are not listed etc……. very interesting….

    What’s worse is that terribly misinformed people who by the luck of the draw happen across Holford, read your bunk and then start to question whether the overwhelming common sense nature of 95% of what he is telling them is not on the up and up. (Just giving them a reason to turn back to toxic twinkies.)

    PLUS…what a nasty commentator you have representing you on this blog. Angry and mean and visceral. Also interesting.

    I am quite sure there are some things Holford says which are incorrect. The vitamin C thing and HIV sounds a bit suspect..(though maybe that was taken out of context…) But whatever the case, when someone is establishing a new way of thinking, it would seem to me that there will be some mistakes along the way…but in my opinion most of what he has to say is brilliant and I have seen it play out in my own health.

    Again, this website is curiously well organized and funded….don’t see anything quite like it for any other supposed health guru out there…not even against Atkins who, let’s be honest, produced a diet which is unhealthy in the extreme. (Been on that too….and could feel my arteries clogging.)

    I also like what the other contributor stated….that if this is the best you can come up with…(again…awfully expensive well organized site for the little hay there is for you guys to make….) then you’ve actually helped me to feel more secure in the bulk of what Holford has to say.

    This site is very suspect….much more suspect then Holford.

  14. As someone who is interested in online debate – particularly of health issues – I have read quite a few blogs, online newspaper articles and forums. While there are a number of websites that carry very robust criticism, and some that are actually vitriolic in nature, this particular site does not seem to me to be vitriolic. I do not get the impression that posts on this site are mean, angry or nasty. What is more, this site tends on the whole (as far as I can tell, anyway) to criticise the views promoted by Holford rather than Holford himself.

    I am also interested to note that Chris states that this site has “actually helped [him] to feel more secure in the bulk of what Holford has to say”. I believe (although I do not have a copy to hand) that Stuart Sutherland noted in Irrationality that even good opposing arguments can entrench ideas that have taken hold. (I’ve had a quick google and The Independent carried a book review that states “once one has publicly committed oneself to some position, genuinely good arguments against it tend to increase one’s commitment to it rather than decrease it”, which I think is a decent summary of the point that Sutherland made and also something that may be relevant here.)

    Chris is “quite sure there are some things Holford says which are incorrect” – this seems to me to be this site’s ‘raison d’être’. While Holford may provide some information that is correct, there is ‘information’ in his writings that is not. It is appropriate that the incorrect information promulgated by Holford is highlighted by this website. Being right sometimes does not mean that someone should be exempt from criticism when they get something wrong.

  15. peter

    You must apply this to yourself then Jd

    • @peter: Are you referring to my comment that: “Being right sometimes does not mean that someone should be exempt from criticism when they get something wrong.”?
      If so, then I completely agree – in fact I have asked readers of my blog on several occasions to provide critical feedback (one example is here: “Online Debate”). If somebody disagrees with me, or spots an error that I have made, then I would prefer to be made aware of it. If you would like to comment on anything that you feel I have written that is incorrect then please feel free to do so (you can highlight my error(s) here, or on my blog, or in an email to me should you wish to do so – my email address can be found via the ‘about’ page on my blog).

      Cheers,
      jdc.

      • peter

        once one has publicly committed oneself to some position, genuinely good arguments against it tend to increase one’s commitment to it rather than decrease it”,

        i was refering to this comment

        • Thank you for clarifying. I’m not sure, though, what public commitment to a position I have made that you could be referring to – or what good arguments have been made that should have decreased my commitment to this position.

  16. peter

    Everyone makes judgements according to their beliefs. The fact that you beleive you can find the truth about nature by reading research papers is a belief system, is it not? Science itself is just a belief system and this posistion you have commited to will only grow stronger and stronger. This does not make it real or true. It might be, but it also migth not be.

  17. Scarey comment, Peter.

    I had a late night discussion a few months ago with my then house mate who is a lecturer at the local university. He told me about a survey of undergraduates in various scientific disciplines which asked the question: “What is science?” Many were unable to say and you seem to be in that category as well.

  18. peter

    Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge, does it not? Again, where have we gained the belief that this system is correct? Maybe you should do some digging into the history of science.
    The big problem with the teaching and practice of science is that it if you cant see it or measure it, it doesnt exist. It is the arrogance of the human that believes measuring everything will explain the laws of nature. This is such a false notion. It is well documented that the observed is affected by the observer which should tell you we are all on a wild goose chase. This reality is likely to be far far stranger than our brains will ever be able to understand.
    Im sure you think this human pursuit to understand the laws of nature is great (although all in all science has created nothing but problems) but what if we have been heading off in the wrong direction.
    I dont expect you to agree (or understand) but then we only know what we have been exposed to and experienced. What we believe to be true is only true in our own reality.

    • Daniel

      Full house:

      1) “Science is just a belief system”
      2) “Observation is affected by observer”
      3) “We make our own reality”

      Ad 1) It is not. It is merely a formalization of the everyday act of establishing or refuting facts. I will come back to that in a minute.

      Ad 2) That is a typically misunderstood peculiarity of some corners of quantum mechanics and does not allow for generalization. The “theory” that an objective reality exists has worked well, and in fact “reproducibility” is a key issue in science or “fact-checking”. Me measuring the speed of a car won’t change that quantity; me looking at the sky won’t change its color and me counting cancer deaths (i.e. measuring a mortality rate) won’t prevent people from dying. And, in fact, even in quantum mechanics, the interactions causing the observer problem are well studied. Which brings me to…

      Ad 3) …the “subjective reality” thing. You are welcome to interpret your perception of reality in whatever way you like. But as explained above, fact-checking relies on getting rid of a personal slant, and this is performed with great rigour in, dare I say it, science.

      Back to 1) I you really choose to refuse an objective reality, then how do you care what people write of believe? You may well just imagine all that? It’s a slippery slope.

      Greetings,
      Daniel

  19. I am sure there are better people than me involved with this blog to give a definition of science.

    My understanding is: (1) You observe reality (2) You come up with an explanation for what you are observing (3) You find a means of testing your theory (4) You repeat it under the same conditions

    Presumably you don’t believe in objective reality – very handy when it comes to selling crackpot cures and training courses.

  20. peter

    Quite a weak response LeeT im afraid
    You maybe need to go and research the latest findings on reality, conciousness, subconcious actions, epigenetics, neuroplacticity etc

    • Daniel

      Your argument is that there is no objective reality, therefore everybody should be allowed to just make sh*t up?

      If there is no “real world” out there, how can I be sure “everybody else” even exists? Are you even real or just a figment of my imagination? Hell, am I real?

      I think this may be interesting in a philosophy class or late on a Saturday night, but when we’re dealing with real people’s health and lives, we should agree there is an independent reality that we can both assess and influence.

      Anything else does simply not help.
      Daniel

      • jo

        I think the point here is that there is not an independent reality due to differerent perceptions of environmental stimuli based on past experiences. Your perception of reality is and never will be the same as mine for example. It isnt always just about making s…t up. Unfortunatley breaking ‘nature’ down in order to understands the parts (as science generally does) by observing it from our perspective will find the answers we are looking for but are question the correct ones?? It may WELL help therefore to try and understand health and disease from a different viewpoint. We are made of the same stuff the rest of the universe is made of. We ARE the ‘nature’ we are trying so hard to understand. Nature trying to undertsand nature. The universe experiencing its self.
        People on this website do nothing to improve peoples health or get to the bottom of disease processes. They might prove A from one study and prove B with another, but unfortunately they will never make the link of how A affects B. They are probably lost in a world of ‘facts’ that when in out there in the web of life where everything is connected means NOTHING

        • The web of life is complicated. Science is one interesting way of finding out about it.

        • Daniel

          You, Sir, know nothing of medical research. Asserting that science does not look into interdependencies? Assuming that all science and all systematic searching always (unnaturally, you imply) seeks to “break down” stuff? Wabbling on about your perception vs. my perception of reality?

          Puleees.

          And the whole “my reality, your reality” batshit? It’s not like we’re talking about Love, Friendship, God, or How-you-like-your-steak on this blog. This is about health issues. And people do not care whether your perception of health is different from mine. They want to know what will make them live longer or what will prevent them from getting ill. We do not find answers by simply making stuff up, as Holford and the likes are doing.

          “If you make health claims, then you must prove them.” – that is the point here. Not whether or not we can agree on our personal perceptions of reality.

        • Tim

          Fantastic!! I do love it when a humanities student tries to understand science but fails on page one.

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