Thursday, February 22, 2007

Crap on the telly

The New Year’s TV schedules are typically obsessed with obesity and health.

Channel 4’s contribution was a new series of You Are What You Eat, featuring the infamous Gillian McKeith and ominously subtitled Gillian Moves In. The format involved the self-styled holistic nutritionist scouring ‘the fat of the land’ to identify ‘supersize slobs’ with ‘thick hides’ and diets like ‘porky pigs’. She aimed to trap two unwary subjects in her TV home and then subject them to a draconian diet and exercise regime.

In the first programme, Ian and Sharon were confronted with a food-laden table showing the full horror of their weekly intake of salt, saturated fat, and monosodium glutamate. This gave McKeith the opportunity to swipe the stodge petulantly onto the floor and stamp all over it. Following further humiliations, the pair was sent home with ‘recipes, rules and reassurance,’ only to be visited again so that the ‘evil diet witch’ could trash the kids’ crisps as well.

McKeith has been the target of heavy criticism for advocating diets that have little scientific support, but there were only fleeting signs of such barminess here. On the contrary, the little information and advice she offered seemed modest in its claims. And after eight weeks, both inmates had lost two stones in weight. Ian could now play football with his son for more than a minute and Sharon was out shopping for sexy lingerie again.

McKeith is also well known for her obsession with crap. Her goal is the perfect poo: smooth, soft and easy to pass. For aficionados, that’s a type 4 stool – like a sausage or snake – according to the official Bristol Stool Form Chart. True to form, McKeith did not disappoint her fans as she duly inspected the captives’ disappointing and disgusting turds.

Shit was also firmly on the menu in the first of a new series, The Truth about Food, going out on BBC2. The series aimed to reveal the science behind the food we eat and what food does to our bodies. As the first of several well-known personalities slated to present the show, newsreader Fiona Bruce enthusiastically examined different aspects of food with the help of ‘top scientists’ and 'guinea pigs' plucked from a willing public.

Amiable truckers Don and Wolfgang demonstrated the importance of dietary fibre as they drove across Europe. High fibre replaced their conventional fare of greasy-spoon fry-ups and tinned food straight out of the can. The new diet helped the truckers get their transit time – the time food takes to traverse the tunnel between mouth and anus – from one to two days down to about 12 hours, helping to clear potentially cancer-causing toxins from the bowels.

The workings of the gut were further illustrated with the help of the ‘pill cam’, a neat piece of technology in the form of a large pill kitted out with its own lights, camera and video link. Swallow the pill and it goes with the flow, filming the sights on the way and showing us the delights within. There were also some helpful graphics to show the pill passing through the system. It was good science but as Don put it: “I can’t stop the truck every two hours to take a shit.”

The young ranchers working in Colorado, on the other hand, were more than happy to contribute their droppings as often as needed. One group dined on vegetables containing high levels of ‘prebiotic’ nutrients known to stimulate the proliferation of beneficial organisms in the gut. A second group ate ‘probiotic’ yoghurt containing live healthy bugs. Faecal analysis showed that the vegetables were better at increasing the good bacteria over the bad ones. The side effect of eating artichokes, leeks and onions was predictable.

Much farting and latrine humour was also evident among volunteers living in a compound at Paignton Zoo and surviving on 5 kg of raw fruit and vegetables daily, a diet similar to that enjoyed by apes in the wild and by our ancestors millions of years ago. Just 12 days of this unusual torture succeeded in reducing the participants’ cholesterol levels by more than 20%, a good thing given the role of cholesterol in heart disease, and it also reduced weight and blood pressure.

So, at the start of 2007, the couch potato had plenty of opportunity to cosy up in front of the telly - home-delivery pizza, bottle of fizzy rot, and remote control to hand - to ponder our pre-occupation with bodily functions and to imagine how good it would be to escape our modern, unhealthy way of living.


aj said...

I've been enjoying the recent stand-off between Gillian McKeith and Guardian 'Bad Science' columnist Ben Goldacre. It seems 'Dr' Gillian is not a medical doctor, instead having some form of internet PhD. Cue false advertising claims and the rapid removal of Dr from any products related to Gillian McKeith...

S said...

Hey Eddie,

Good stuff - I agree with most of what you've written.

Here's the critique of McKeith AJ just mentioned.,,2011095,00.html

...and a lovely picture to entertain you too..


Giskin said...

Welcome to the blog, Eddie! This really made me chuckle.

Eddie W said...

Thanks for the comments. Goldacre has certainly got his teeth into pop nutritionists and other sellers of snake-oil. I noted that in the Guardian article he believes clean, clear information will produce huge advances in the 21st century. This is reminiscent of the failed 'hypodermic needle' version of science communication. The fact that so many people are taken in by pseudo-scientists suggests that they provide something the real scientists fail to deliver. Finding out what that 'something' and using it positively could be important.