Sometimes the BBC’s flagship science programme serves up a well-timed piece of investigative journalism, and this was a doozy. Dr Giles Yeo is a geneticist studying obesity at Cambridge University, so is well placed to investigate ‘clean eating’, a recent diet craze and social media sensation. He nicely separates fact from fiction in the bizarro but strangely attractive world of green juices, spiralized vegetables and Instagram meals.
Dr Yeo is a bit of a superstar, with a calm demeanor in the face of utter nonsense and appalling pseudoscience. I would not want to play him at poker. He looks super cool driving a Mustang around America. His style reminded me of Louis Theroux; he’s very kind to nutters. He is measured and thoughtful; willing to engage and break bread with crazy people (although of course not actual bread – it’s got the twin evils of gluten and grain in it and it will KILL YOU DEAD!!) He seems patient and doesn’t get riled easily. I’d just want to shout, which sadly doesn’t have the desired effect on idiots. He on the other hand is happy to listen and then explain with empirical and measurable data exactly why your claims are nonsense.
The first person he meets is food writer and clean-eating superstar Deliciously Ella (seriously, I’m not about to accept advice from anyone with a cutesy baby name, on any subject, ever). Her cookbooks and philosophy seem like entry-level woo. It’s largely sensible advice about diet – eat more fruit and veg, eat less processed stuff, cook from scratch more. However she then claims she cured a rare illness she was suffering from by making changes to her diet. This big change to her diet seems to have worked for her, and good for her. But what works for one person may not work for another. In fact, a radical change in diet may be significantly unhealthy if you discount your doctor’s advice and just work by what’s popular on the internet or what looks pretty on Instagram. Can you see how easy it is to slip into nonsense?
Deliciously Ella (each time I write it, it sounds sillier) is in Dr Yeo’s line up of diet peddlers with sisters Hemsley and Hemsley, who go one step further than the gluten-free fad (still only important to cut out of your diet if you have coeliac disease) and have cut out grains from their diet altogether. This line up of women all look like dull beige clones of each other, selling the same crappy lifestyle over and over again. They’re all from the same cookie cutter, but again, no cookies for you! That is not appealing to me at all.
Lucy Dunn, a former clean-eater herself, hits the nail on the head in an article about these restrictive diets “Don’t get me wrong, their recipes aren’t harmful. It’s perfectly OK to eat their food and to eat healthily and no one is saying we shouldn’t eat a few more veg and a little less meat. But encouraging people to demonise certain food groups long-term (unless they are medically diagnosed as intolerant) and adding a sharp edge of guilt to food is not OK. ”
These weird philosophes and get-thin-quick plans are marketed to impressionable people with an already skewed view of food thanks to decades of shitty diets and impossible claims perpetuated by the alleged reliable media and the lawless Wild West of social media. Once pressed, all these snake oil cookbook sellers talk about the importance of moderation, which is never, ever stressed in their original publications. The majority of people are lucky – we can eat a broccoli stir-fry and have a sugary donut for desert if we choose. We should be allowed to feel good about what we eat. We should be allowed to enjoy it.
The logical (and I’m really stretching the use of that word) conclusion of this diet based pseudoscience is “Dr” Robert O Young (he bought his title off a website). He is a dangerous fraud working out of an ugly mansion in San Diego. His empty fish tank in the lobby is there as explanation of his weird ideas about how if something is sick it’s the environment (in this case the water) that needs to be changed. He says “The human body in its perfect state of health is alkaline in its design.” Has no one told him about stomach acid? I guess as he’s not been to medical school he may not know how vital it is for the body. No fish in that tank. Not one. He says that’s by design but I think they left because even his pets couldn’t stand to live with him any more.
You’d think because he’s just a nut on the internet, with books in shops that mainly sell wind chimes and ‘healing’ crystals and (important to remember) in NO WAY a real doctor that it’s ok. He can chat shit over a tasty mug of kale juice all day long. He won’t be able to harm anyone. Think again. Naima Houder-Mohammed was a British Army officer in her 20s who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was so serious she was offered end-of-life care. She googled her cancer, as you do when you get ill – and believe me you do, especially in the hopeless dark at 4am. She came across Young and his promise of wellness through his own regime of diet, treatments and massage. She was convinced by him and paid over $77,000 to him, that neither she nor her family could really afford. Naida went to stay at his house/ clinic (only after she’d paid up-front) and had intravenous infusions of baking soda. Baking soda. The same fucking shit you use to clean your fridge. She trusted him and he took her money and watched her get sicker and sicker. After about three months at Young’s facility, her condition worsened and she was taken to hospital. Naima was brought back to the UK and died with her family. She was 27. This man is a fucking monster preying on the desperation of sick, vulnerable people.
With more dignity that Young deserves, Dr Yeo put this to him. His weaselly response is “But I wasn’t selling her anything… I didn’t force her to come here, it was her decision.” He wiggles out of any responsibility for his patients and says he never promised to cure Naima. Well, the words ‘wellness’, ‘health’ and ‘healing’ takes on a certain meaning when you have cancer. You’re a moron if you think otherwise. If you’re frightened of dying you’re not worried about recovering from the fucking sniffles.
So far the Medical Board of California have only been able to convict him of two charges of practising medicine without a licence. He faces up to three years in prison. I really hope that happens and I hope it sends a message to the rest of the fucked-up twisted side of the internet that preys on the vulnerable. I doubt it though as these peddlers of nonsense are a multi-headed hydra. Chop one off and another two spring up in its place. And worse still, some of these deluded individuals really think they’re doing good and it’s fine for people to be taking their advice as seriously as you would from your actual doctor.
This stuff makes me furious. I was very impressed with Dr Yeo, because I couldn’t have stayed cool in the face of this dangerous nonsense. I’d like to see a lot more of him on tv, scrutinising and studying bold health claims; especially as new ones seem to come along every month. I really hope that BBC2 weren’t simply preaching to the converted and that the show reached a wide audience, to remind people to be suspicious of any health claims, diets and miracle cures offered to them. Do these people really have your best interests at heart, or do they just want your money?
There’s a month left to watch this episode of Horizon on iPlayer. Do it, and share it too. Let’s actually help people.