Journalists are bad for your health, again

As I’ve mentioned before, some of the health articles in magazines are wrong at best and dangerous at worst. The current issue of womens’ title R contains a particularly blatant example: under the banner headline “Is Salad Making You Fat?” it spends three pages singing the praises of the Novo Programme.

The Novo Programme is new and very scientific. You send off a sample of your blood for analysis – along with £350 – and the report comes back detailing the foods you should avoid. It is, of course, bullshit. Apparently we’re all intolerant of various foods, and particles of those foods whizz around the bloodstream playing merry hell with your immune system. This makes you fat.


The Novo Programme isn’t new at all; it’s a revised and rebranded version of the Nutron Diet, which pops up every few years under a new name. Which? Magazine investigated it back in 1994, and concluded that it’s a con: they sent in two samples and got two completely different sets of results, which was strange as both samples were from the same person and were drawn at the same time. More worryingly, the samples were from someone who actually had a serious allergy; the oh-so-scientific tests didn’t spot it in either sample.

What’s particularly galling about the article is that all the stuff about Novo/Nutron above took less than a minute to find in Google, and yet over three pages there wasn’t a single sentence rebutting the Novo Programme’s claims. There’s plenty of case studies, though, and they all go something like this:

I’ve tried all kinds of diets before and they didn’t work, but the Novo Programme did! The tests came back and I discovered that I can’t eat X, Y or Z! So I cut them out of my diet and blam! I lost weight!

Typically X will be something innocuous such as lettuce, but Y & Z will be processed/junk foods and chocolate. Oh, and the Novo Programme also forbids alcohol for the first two months. Do people lose weight? Of course they do, but it’s because they’re not eating junk food or drinking booze.

As I wrote back in December:

we want a quick fix, a miracle drug, a magic bullet. That such things rarely, if ever, exist doesn’t stop newspapers from levelling entire forests to bring us articles expounding the virtues of assorted quackeries.

This really bugs me. If I write something that isn’t up to scratch, the worst that can happen is you’ll find that a program can’t export in a particular file format or needs a bit more RAM than I’ve suggested. If health writers write bad articles, their advice can damage your health. And R isn’t the only offender: in the sunday papers last weekend, there was yet another article banging on about St John’s Wort that listed all its benefits but didn’t mention that it’s bad, bad news for pregnant women or anyone taking blood-thinning drugs such as Warfarin.

Let me put it another way: you’re getting more reliable health information from a balding, binge drinking, heavy smoking, lazy-arsed Scots techno-blogger than you’re getting from supposed health experts. Does that scare you? It scares the hell out of me.