Fat lot of good

To be fair, this story was broken in the Sunday Times yesterday, which is where I read it, but I don’t have the paper with me, and as the Times website seems to have mysteriously disappeared, I’m having to quote from the Mail online. The facts seem to be the same. Susan Jebb [left], Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the Medical Research Council, and a senior adviser in the Government’s “battle against obesity” (how’s that going, then?) has been found to have pocketed thousands of pounds from the slimming industry. She has been paid to write articles and appear in promotional videos for the Rosemary Conley [right] fitness company. Now, you may not care that someone in such a lofty position on an influential Government-funded group takes money from a private company. But when that company stands to benefit from this influential individual’s findings, the lines between public and private blur – as they so often do – and in the case of official scientific and dietary advice, this strikes me as problematic.

You may remember the headlines that ran right across our national press in June, claiming (and here I quote from the Guardian’s cover story), “Today science is offering an authoritative and surprisingly positive endorsement: two studies from the Medical Research Council, led by one of Britain’s leading nutrition scientists, say that Weight Watchers really does work.” These studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers. Meanwhile, Jebb was also being paid for endorsements by Rosemary Conley. It all adds up to a scientific body advertising private companies, and harvesting headlines in the press for those companies in the process. The Guardian’s was unequivocal: WEIGHT WATCHERS DOES WORK, SAY SCIENTISTS. The other papers went with variations on this theme. Many people will not have even read down to the bit where the source of the studies’ funding came from. Many who did will not have minded. I mind.

Now, the issue here is not whether Weight Watchers does or doesn’t work. From what I have read, and heard from those who’ve used the system, it works for some, and not for others, as with many dieting techniques, and the weight generally goes straight back on once you stop doing it. I am not having a go at Weight Watchers – as I say, I know people who’ve joined and benefited, and the social aspects seem positive – but let us be in no doubt: you have to pay to join (around £18 a month, after introductory offers), and members are vigorously encouraged to buy Weight Watchers processed food products: cake mixes, potted desserts, readymeals, sauces, pizzas and “savoury snacks” which by their nature can’t be as good for you as eating whole foods, or as cheap. So is it right for the Government to endorse Weight Watchers and put out a sensational press release based on the abstracts for these studies? It was, understandably, gobbled up by the newspapers – a big deal for the company behind Weight Watchers (which was owned by Heinz between 1978 and 1999, who still manufacture chocolate brownies, frozen risotto and pizza with the Weight Watchers logo). Hey, it’s the kind of advertising you can’t buy.

So if Susan Jebb, the Government’s “authority on the best ways to get fit”, publicly praises fitness clubs that she’s receiving money from, personally, does that not undermine her authority, or at the very least muddy the waters? As head of the MRC’s Human Nutrition Research unit, a major part of Dr Jebb’s job involves ­advising the Government on ­obesity. How can she do so with a clear conscience when she still appears on Rosemary Conley’s internet channel or website endorsing her methods? “Health kicks that have stood the test of time, like Rosemary Conley’s, usually do so for a good reason – they work,” she writes on the website, one of Conley’s “health experts.” If she’s been paid to write this, what are we to make of it? Again, I’m not saying it does or doesn’t work, but like Weight Watchers, you can buy Rosemary Conley processed food off her website. I have never met a nutritionist who would advise anyone to eat processed over non-processed food.

It’s not a crime to sell this stuff, or offer any dieting service that may work and then charge people for it, but when the line is blurred between private business and Government advice, my conflict-of-interest sensors start to twitch. In another piece on Conley’s website, Jebb advises, impartially, “Enrol now in a Rosemary Conley class to get the information, support and encouragement you need.” Would you mind if an MP did a voiceover for a McDonald’s advert? I would.

In an online interview, according to the Times (I can’t find this online), Jebb discusses the importance of using “portion control”, while an ad goes by advertising Rosemary Conley’s Portion Pots (plastic measuring pots in bright colours which help you measure things if you are unable to operate kitchen scales). Now, as a nutritionist, Jebb is entitled to take money from whomsoever she pleases, and offer advice for money. But when she is the Head of Nutrition and Health Research at a “publicly-funded organisation dedicated to improving human health” (their words) – one of only two recipients of Government health research cash, along with the National Institute for Health Research – should she really be popping up on Rosemary Conley’s website helping to legitimise the health benefits of Rosemary Conley? In 2008, Jebb chaired a Food Standards Agency meeting which concluded that Conley’s Portion Pots “could be a valuable aid to losing weight.” On the website, she sings the praises, by name, of Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ. This is not a conflict of interest, just free advertising, because as far as I’m aware, she’s not even being paid by Raisio or Unilever, who make these products.

The Medical Research Council has defended Jebb’s position, saying that while it is “committed to transparency, scientific ­integrity and independence”, its scientists “can provide scientific advice or consultancy to third parties”. That’s OK, then. Government-paid advisers are for hire. They say that Jebb was working for Conley before she took up her post at the MRC, but the videos and columns are right there on Conley’s websites, and she was paid “under £10,000” a year for her expertise. I’m not sure when she took up her post, but she’s certainly been at the MRC since 2003, when she officially rubbished the Atkins diet, which again made headlines across the media, as it was a good headline. The Telegraph ran the story on August 13, 2003: ATKINS DIET MAY BE BAD FOR HEALTH, WARNS NUTRITIONIST. Five days later, the paper ran a follow-up story, headlined: ANTI-ATKINS NUTRITIONIST WORKING FOR FLOUR MILLERS. Turns out that Jebb’s research into diets had been part-funded to the tune of £10,000 by the Flour Advisory Bureau, the lobbying arm of the National Association of British and Irish Millers. Who make flour. Which people on the Atkins diet don’t eat much of.

Hey, it’s not exactly hold-the-front-page that the private sector is funding research. I know. It happens in every corner of the industry. But I felt like writing about this example, because although flogging processed food as a healthy alternative to unprocessed food is not a crime, I find it all a little tasteless when the influence of business can encroach upon the Government’s scientific and health advice. I might not, but a lot of people take Government advice seriously. And a headline on the front page of my Guardian telling me that Weight Watchers officially works is something I find hard to ignore. I thought the papers were finding it difficult to sell advertising, but the Guardian gave an advert away that day.

The Sunday Times quoted Dr Jebb, although I don’t know if this is an existing quote or one in response to their article. She said: “I have scientific advice which I am keen to get out to people – working with Rosemary Conley gives me an avenue to do that.” An avenue lined with money. Either work for the Government, Doc, and tell us how to live our lives, or work for Rosemary Conley and Weight Watchers, whom we may or may not choose to pay to find out how to live our lives.

Phew! Nobody in their right mind can tell me I’m being anti-science today!


13 thoughts on “Fat lot of good

  1. You’re so anti-science! (You knew that would happen.)

    You’re being brave tody even touching on a scientific topic. I will post the stock Andy-Collins-writes-a-blog-on-science reply:

    You/the article you read have/has completely misunderstood the science here.

    I suppose you’re going to claim that a homeopathic remedy would work better than Weight Watchers.

    If this was about ducks you wouldn’t be saying this.

    Yada yada yada scaremongering yada yada Ben Goldacre yada yada.

    Do I win £5?

  2. From one who did the Atkins Diet and lost weight on it, diets do work. But there’s too much conflicting advice out there to make it a simple choice. And when you have a spokesperson telling you how marvellous this or that diet is it’s time to back off as only the terminally dim believe Carol Vorderman lost stones on a detox or Fern Britton did it all by cycling.

    The best advice if you’re fat of course is to eat less and exercise more.

  3. I suppose the thing about these Weight Watchers products is that no they are not good for you, but people will always want chocolate brownies. And these are ostensibly better for you than the normal kind. Of course you can make your own gorgeous healthy brownies using apple puree to replace the fat & processed sugar, but people don’t bake for themselves, generally.

    It is concerning that the government is being bought- but at the same time doesn’t everyone approach the news with a cynical pinch of salt these days?

  4. You do the jokes, i’ll do the science!

    On a serious note, nutrition is an area of science the media are obsessed with and it isn’t simple because there are so many influences on weight and health to control for. A single study isn’t going to provide concrete answers, yet this is how its always reported. Someone funded by millers may have found the atkins diet not to work, this should prompt many other scientist to investigate and replicate results. To reach a consensus in any area of science requires many study’s over many years, that’s how the scientific method works. Single studies can be bias for many reasons but when enough research is done the consensus will expose them.

    And then i was sick

  5. I had a Weight Watchers pizza the other week and it was so awful I threw 80% of it away. Clearly, it works!

    But seriously, eat less, move more, as F-C says. Having recently had a big op, the pounds have fallen off, and I know that to be truly skinny, you really have to not like food very much and eat very little of it. This is never really going to happen for me, so a couple of years ago, for a feature, I tried the Rosemary Conley plan. The food suggestions were awful; all low-fat sausages and horrid RC-branded chocolate mousses, and although I did lose weight, the food was like being caught in some grim Seventies comestibles timewarp.

    Cook your own food; eat natural and don’t buy ‘diet’ anything.

  6. So according to the Medical Research Council this is all alright but the BBC had to fire Carol Vorderman from Tomorrow’s World back in the 90s because she appeared in a washing powder advert wearing a white coat. Viewers might not take her highly trained scientific mind seriously knowing she uses it to sell things.

  7. The Weight Watchers scheme has the advantage of encouraging you to eat fresh fruit and veg, as these are mostly zero rated, ie you can eat as much of them as you like without it affecting your overall daily count. The branded stuff is for if you really want/need to eat something more calorific, then it’s a better option than general products out there already, as mentioned above.

    This is separate from the general argument that government health advisers should probably steer clear of taking money from private organisations they are passing their professional judgement on. (Including the Richard Herring Diet ™ which I believe will be in the shops by Christmas.)

  8. Thanks Andrew. That is pretty poor form indeed from Jebbs. I actually think that pharmaceutical research really does need to be funded by pharmaceutical companies, because its so damned expensive, and I can’t think of any really easy way around that dilemma, though its clear there should be lots more transparency in the way those kinds of studies are carried out.

    For nutrition research though, or for example, understanding whether weight watchers works or not ought to be really cheap. All you need is scales! or maybe not even that. Just a PhD student for example to follow a weight watchers class around. No need for part funding by the beneficiary.

    re: Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ- I think these are probably the only two products of their type on the market- maybe that’s why they were both named. They contain plant stanol esters (so I’m told) which are supposed to block uptake of cholesterol in your gut, and hence be of benefit to people having high cholesterol. I’ve not studied the literature about whether this is really true. Cholesterol is a fairly complex business, and we also make our own mainly in our livers, so its not all about how much we eat…

  9. Did Judith Hann get the sack from Tomorrow’s World for wanting to do adverts as well? Not sure, but I liked her, last of the proper scientists to present.

    But anyway, may I mention Adolf Hitler? Only in the context of Michael Caine who I recall mentioning on a Parkinson show that his tastes in food were fairly simple because he grew up on the ‘Hitler diet’.

    As did many of your readers’ ageing relatives I expect, across Europe – lots of ‘plain’ food, little processed food, lots of exercise (involuntary, mostly), not too much booze. I refer only to the civilian population here, I don’t know what the armed forces had to eat.

    And, obviously, having to be in a world war is not a sane diet plan, and it’s not a diet that many would aspire to but I suppose it is a valid comparison point as a large scale controlled experiment in nutrition control.

  10. I’ve never understood why a big neon sign reading “Eat less” wouldn’t do the job just as well as all this snake oil selling.

  11. Your friend Ben Goldacre has big bit about this in his book.

    Companies will pay for research whose results end up benefiting their product either by proving it works or by proving there is a non existant danger that only their product will protect against.

    If the research doesn’t bring up the neccesary outcome it goes in the bin or is tweaked to produce the “right” results.

    These conflicts of interests go on all the time and they are wrong.

  12. Which is why Goldacre argues for a register of clinical trials, so that any pharmaceutical trials with unfavourable results can’t get simply locked in a draw and forgotten about. At least there’d be a record of the trial having been completed. If the results don’t get published you’d be able to assume the results weren’t what the company was looking for, or at least ask more questions.

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