Back in 2008, Ben Goldacre made a two part radio series called The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists. It seems that the show may have been made at the peak of the modern lifestyle nutritionists’ popularity.
I looked at Google Trends and the Google News archives to see how much exposure various lifestyle nutritionists received over the last few years.
Dr John Briffa does not have enough search volume to generate a graph on Google Trends but it can be seen from the Google News Archive that he featured most often in the news in 1998, and that in the last decade his best years were 2007 and 2008. Since 2007, the trend has been downward.
The Google Trends graph for Gillian McKeith shows peaks in 2004, 2005/6, and 2007. Since then, the line has gone almost flat. McKeith’s Channel 4 show You Are What You Eat was cancelled in 2007. It’s not entirely clear whether McKeith’s popularity has dipped partly because her show was cancelled but this dip certainly seems to have begun before the show was cancelled.
News articles about McKeith show an upward trend from 2002-2006, and a downward trend ever since. It looks as though 2010 might see an increase in stories about McKeith, but that may reflect the recent controversy over a spat on Twitter.
One person who seems to have been cushioned to an extent is Patrick Holford. While certainly less popular now than in 2007 (the year when the most searches were made and the most news articles written), it might be premature to write off Patrick Holford.
I say this perhaps partly because Patrick Holford has been promoted around the world. While Mr Holford may not be as visible or as popular in Britain as he once was, the search term “Patrick Holford” does still seem to be quite common in South Africa and Ireland. It will be interesting to see how long Holford can maintain some degree of popularity in these countries.
It could be that nutritionism is simply falling out of fashion. Perhaps McKeith, Holford et al are now seen as being old hat, yesterday’s news. Maybe nutritionism is no longer the nonsense du jour, as Ben Goldacre described it in Bad Science.
Or… it could be that the scrutiny of their work by the likes of Ben Goldacre and Holford Watch has shed sufficient light on their scholarship that it is now widely recognised for what it is. Maybe Holford’s howlers and McKeith’s misunderstandings have now penetrated the public consciousness.
Holford Watch certainly seem to have less material to work with now – from April to July of 2007, they were posting almost a blog a day. In the same period in 2010, there were, on average, two posts per month.
The media are still writing about vitamins (though interest in antioxidants seems to have declined over the last couple of years), while coverage of superfoods remains steady. While the erstwhile high-profile proponents of nutritionism have lost popularity, it seems that nutritionism is still part of the mainstream media’s stock-in-trade.
Now that light has been shed on the nutritionistas, perhaps the most important element in the promotion of what David Colquhoun refers to as nutribollocks is the mainstream media.