Patrick Holford – Quack of Quacks

George Elliot’s eponymous hero Felix Holt was a man of principle unlike his father. After his father’s death, 

Felix was heir to nothing better than a quack medicine; his mother lived up a back street in Treby Magna, and her sitting-room was ornamented with her best tea-tray and several framed testimonials to the virtues of Holt’s Cathartic Lozenges and Holt’s Restorative Elixir.

But Felix would not countenance his mother living on the sales of the quack medicines left to her by her late husband.

I know that the Cathartic Pills are a drastic compound which may be as bad as poison to half the people who swallow them – that the Elixir is an absurd farrago of a dozen incompatible things; and that the Cancer Cure might as well be bottled ditch-water.

Felix was determined to earn an honest living.

I shall keep my mother as well – nay, better – than she has kept herself. She has always been frugal. With my watch and clock cleaning, and teaching one or two little chaps that I’ve got to come to me, I can earn enough. As for me, I can live on bran porridge.

Patrick Holford – true believer.

Ah, bran porridge! Patrick Holford would be proud. He is a great believer in bran. Unfortunately, like Holt’s father, he is also a great believer in  pills and elixirs and cures for cancer. In fact Holford thinks he can cure most things including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, alzheimers, arthritis and, of course, autism – hence my interest. And once you are cured he promises to give you beautiful skin and improve your sex life as well!

Patrick Holford – Quack

OK. The guy is a quack. End of story. Unfortunately this quack appears regularly on national TV and is cited as an expert by many national newspapers. As a result his books are bestsellers and he is beginning to gain an international reputation. This makes him a dangerous quack. Fortunately over at Holford Watch a team of bloggers are on his case

This blog uses basic science to challenge the nutritionist Patrick Holford. Holford’s website describes him as “a pioneer…Britains best-selling author and leading spokesman on nutrition and mental health”. Holford’s key qualifications include “being frequently quoted almost weekly in…newspapers”; he also claims to be “a vegan who eats eggs and fish”. With all these credentials, there’s obviously a lot to learn from watching the guy!

Another favourite of mine is Moonflake who wrote this:

Patrick also claims to have miracle multivitamin cures for almost anything. Not feeling mentally acute? Let’s see what his advice is on improving you memory and concentration:

Here are five easy steps you can take now to help keep your mind and memory sharp:
1. Read my book ‘Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’ £12.99
2. Join 100% Health today and you can have this book at a members discounted price.
3. Have a personal nutrition consultation.
4. Attend my 100% Health Weekend Workshop
5. Follow my  Brain Friendly Diet and supplement programme.

He can’t be taking his own advice, or he might have considered swapping steps 1 and 2. But maybe it’s not a trend. Maybe he really isn’t all about sucking you dry of every miserable penny. Let’s see what his advice on avoiding cancer is:

Here are five easy steps you can take now to say no to cancer:
1. Read my book ‘Say No to Cancer’  – £6.99
2. Join 100% Health today and this book can be yours for free.
3. Have a personal nutrition consultation.
4. Attend my 100% Health Weekend Workshop
5. Follow my ‘Say No to Cancer’ Diet and supplement programme.

I think there might be a pattern here.

Ben Goldacre has also used his Bad Science blog and his newspaper column in the Guardian to expose Holford’s quackery, especially his pernicious tour of Africa when he touted vitamins as a more effective rememdy for AIDS than AZT. Incidentally it was in Africa that journalist Tom Eaton coined the immortal description of Holford as an international bowel-whisperer. He is also anti vaccine, unless they are homeopathic vaccines. I kid you not. And we are not talking common or garden MMR or flu jabs here.

Although less well researched, you may wish to investigate homoeopathic immunisations. In one study 18,000 children were successfully protected against meningitis with a homoeopathic remedy, without a single side-effect.

Inevitably, The Quackometer has revealed that Holford is on the advisory board of Safe Harbor, which is a front organization for the Scientologists. So we can add wackery to quackery.

AIDS, Cancer, Diabetes, Meningitis – these are killer diseases and Holford is giving potentially lethal advice to sufferers who eschew orthodox interventions in favour of his quackery. Compared to this are his dabblings in autism a sideshow that we can safely ignore?

I think not. Autism may not be life threatening but quackery often is. And parents who are aware of his outrageous claims  in other areas will be less likely to trust their child’s welfare to somebody like Holford. So I looked at his website (google it if you must. I refuse to link to misinformation) from which all subsequent Holford quotes are taken.

Patrick Holford on Autism.

Autism appears to be occurring more often and while autism used to occur primarily from birth, over the past ten years there has been a dramatic increase in late onset autism, most frequently diagnosed in the second year of life.

Holford is claiming, with no supporting evidence, that regular autism is present from birth but now we have an increase in late onset autism which strikes at 24 months. 

Late onset autism does not exist. Part of the diagnostic criteria for autism is that the symptoms are present prior to 36 months. How  can there be a late onset variation that appears 12 months earlier? I suspect that Holford is referring to regressive autism, a term used to describes the condition in those children who appear to be developing normally but then regress or fail to meet subsequent developmental milestones. Analysis of family videotapes has shown that this is a real phenomenon. But many of the children who regress into autism show signs of atypical development prior to regression and expert diagnosticians can spot subtle signs, indicative of autism, in these children that parents and non-specialist clinicians often miss.

Holford would like us to believe that regression is caused by factors like the child’s diet,  environmental pollution or vaccinations. The fact is that regressive conditions can be genetic. We even know which gene is responsible in Rett Syndrome, a regressive form of autism found almost exclusively in girls.

Patrick Holford on the causes of Autism

As with many conditions there is debate as to whether autism is inherited or caused by something like diet or environment.

Actually there is no debate.  The consensus is that autism is genetic. Lots of factors affect gene expression, including other genes. Environmental factors that begin in the womb and continue after birth also play a part. What we have is a complex interaction of the organism and its environment that defies simple either or explanations. Holford is trying to revive the old genes versus enviroment dichotomy which no self respecting biologist would countenance today.

Parents and siblings of autistic children are far more likely to suffer from milk or gluten allergy, have digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, night blindness, light sensitivity, thyroid problems and cancer. Being breastfed also increases the risk.

This is nonsense, and badly written to boot. Does the final sentence refer to risk of disorders in parents and siblings or the risk of autism? Whatever happened to “Breast is Best”?

At first glance, once might suspect that autistic children may inherit certain imbalances. However an alternative explanation might be that other family members eat the same food and may be lacking the same nutrients and there is growing evidence that some of the nutritional approaches used to help correct dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD can make a significant difference to the autistic child.

None of this is supported by the data.  It is anecdotal. But there are also many anecdotes from parents about the unusual eating habits of their children. In other words, they do not eat the same food.

Recently there has been a raging debate over the danger of the MMR vaccine causing autism in children. The official line is that there’s no good evidence of such a danger.

The debate is over. Wakefield was wrong.  He thought he had found measles in the gut but it was in fact human DNA not measles RNA. The exchange reported by Autism Diva at the autism omnibus proceedings suggests that he published his results knowing that there was good reason to doubt them. Wakefield ignored the doubts. Real science is built on doubt and it is real science, not the official line that has debunked Wakefield.

Patrick Holford – How to Improve the Symptoms of Autism.

Ensure that any nutrient deficiencies are addressed Research has shown that addressing nutrient deficiencies can dramatically improve symptoms in Autistic children.

Holford is not talking about healthy eating here. There is a lucrative market in selling vitamins, mineral supplements and essential fatty acids. Holford is part of this scam.

Remove Allergens – In addition to nutrient deficiencies, the most significant contributing factor in autism appears to be undesirable foods and chemicals that often reach the brain via the bloodstream because of faulty digestion and absorption.

Actually the scientists who subscribe to this theory regard it as evidence of food intolerance, not an allergy. Allergic reactions are immediate and can range from hives to  anaphylactic shock. The effects of food intolerance build up over time. Evidence for food intolerances causing autism is weak and hotly contested. But, even if his  sources are mistaken, Holford could at least do them the service of reading them properly and making sure he understands them before rushing into print!

The strongest direct evidence of foods linked to autism involves wheat and dairy and the specific proteins they contain – namely gluten and casein. These are difficult to digest and can result in allergy especially if introduced too early in life.

Once more, it is intolerance not allergy. Words matter. Accuracy matters, especially in medical matters. I am reminded of the old joke. 

A man walks into the doctor’s surgery and says, “I want to be castrated.” The doctor tries to dissuade him but finally agrees to do it. After the operation the doctor does his rounds and says to the man, “I am still baffled by your request. It was most unusual. Men normally come to me to be circumcised.”  “Oh,” the man replies, “That was the word I was looking for!”

So, what is the right word for Holford: quack; charlatan; fake; snake oil merchant; conman; exploiter; evil, lying busturd? send your answers to info@patrickholford.com

EDIT

NHS Blog Doctor and Holford Watch have both commented on Patrick Holford today. Support your local quackbusters!