Targeting the quackery of Patrick Holford

March 10, 2011

We could be forgiven if often we feel like Alice after falling down the rabbit-hole. We’re surrounded by a world in which we just don’t seem to fit – too big, too small, too fat, too old. In this confusion we’re easy prey for all manner of “quickety-quacks” with their remedies and fixes and enticing labels saying “Drink me” or “Eat me”. 

So opens this wonderful opinion-piece article in The Daily Maverick, where Jacques Rousseau takes aim at trendy nutritionist, Patrick Holford, who is currently in South Africa, presenting a series of seminars relating to the “Feel Good Factor”.
Jacques Rousseau writes: 

When a seller has a track record of making claims that are (to the best of our knowledge) false, surely we should try to wean ourselves off those goods and those sellers? This question is currently foregrounded in the area of health (think organic food, size zero models, the so-called obesity epidemic and so forth), and embodied in the presence of Patrick Holford (or, to borrow a line from Ben Goldacre, and give Holford his full medical title, “Patrick Holford”).

In case you haven’t heard the promotional advertisements on CapeTalk567 and Radio702, “the Feel Good Factor seminar will help you transform the way you think and feel right now and give you an action plan to prevent memory decline later in life and stay free from depression”. What the seminars apparently will not do is teach you to use punctuation, but perhaps your newly transformed self won’t be too concerned about that.

Of course, transformation doesn’t come cheap and, in this case, it serves as a vehicle for selling plenty of books and plenty of vitamin supplements, thanks to Holford’s South African partner, Dis-Chem. Why should we care, though, if people are made to feel better as a result of these interventions? Because, in this case, we do have evidence that Holford is a huckster and a potentially dangerous one at that.

We can perhaps forgive him for continuing to endorse nutritional supplements generally, despite the exhaustive findings of the Cochrane review from 2008 which, in a meta-analysis of 232 000 people, found that anti-oxidant vitamin pills “do us no good and may be harmful”. We could nitpick about the significance of meta-analysis, or anti-oxidant supplements generally versus other supplements, and so forth. Or, perhaps more sensibly, we could concede that supplements do no good for most people, but that they could still be useful for certain people suffering from certain conditions.

Holford does do this, by the way, in that he has formulated and endorses a range of supplements for four quite specific conditions, namely “children”, “mood”, “weight” and “body”. So if you have one or more of those, he has a pill targeted just for you. For the rest of us, who might feel we haven’t yet achieved “optimum health and vitality”, he offers a concoction labelled “essentials”. No child (or adult, in this case) is left behind.

More worrying, perhaps, is a statement like “AZT is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”, which is derived from the research of Rixit Jariwalla, a researcher who was at the time employed by the Dr Rath Research Institute. Rath is well known to South Africans – perhaps particularly those South Africans who had relatives die as a result of shunning (or not being granted easy access to) ARVs in favour of sweet potatoes and garlic.

We could also be concerned by the fact that Holford has no relevant qualifications. He completed a B.Sc. in Psychology, and later failed to complete an MPhil at Surrey University. While it’s true that he’s a nutritionist, so is Gillian McKeith – the title of “nutritionist” is not a protected one in the UK, and anyone is free to grant themselves this honorific. While no less an authority than the Daily Mail tells us that “Patrick Holford is one of the world's leading authorities on new approach to health and nutrition”, there seems little reason to consider him an expert in this field.

There is more to tell, such as the fact that his honorary diploma in nutrition was awarded by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition during Holford’s tenure as director of that institute. Or his endorsement of a different magic bracelet to PowerBalance, namely the QLink pendant, which somehow corrects your “energy frequencies”, despite the fact that no frequencies can be detected emitting from the pendant, which contains electrical components that are not connected.

You can read about his connections to Scientology elsewhere, or (on the same site) learn about the inaccurate details presented on his CV. On two occasions (that I am aware of), the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints regarding his alleged expertise and the efficacy of the supplements he endorses. While he might be a well-meaning fellow, if he looks like a duck and acts like a duck, he might well be a quack.

And if he is a quack, or even if it’s likely that he is a quack, it is regrettable that a nationwide pharmacy chain is endorsing his Feel Good Factor roadshow. As for the advertising revenue Primedia gets for promoting this roadshow, one can only hope they’re spending it on Aids-related charities, rather than on vitamin C supplements.

From:, quoting the article from The Daily Maverick.

1 September 2011: Read also: a/patrick-holfords-smart-kids-brain-boost/

13 comments to Targeting the quackery of Patrick Holford

  • Sandy Bailey

    'Quackery' – Maybe…
    I can only talk from personal experience.  Always given his supplement Smart Kids and Omega 3 to our children…  Always top of the class! (maybe just great IQs which they do have).
    but…  one of their friends for various reasons came to us after school for a term.  I gave her the same vitamins, only 2.  The teacher asked to see me and asked if I had been assisting the child with her homework.  I hadn't, didn't have time.  Her results had rocketed… was it the vitamins?  I thought so.
    Not scientific proof but a definite positive.  Incidentally the child slipped back to being mediocre within 6 months of not being given these vitamins.  

  • Harris

    Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for your input. Anecdotal evidence is always interesting and you are correct, was it the supplementation or not?

    Here is a fascinating study, published in the Lancet, which shows that purely by increasing the interaction with children (a specific group – growth-stunted Jamaican children), that IQ increased:

    "We recorded no significant effects of nutritional supplementation. Compared with no intervention, stimulation resulted in higher full scale IQ scores".

    Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, Grantham-McGregor SM.  Effects of early childhood psychosocial stimulation and nutritional supplementation on cognition and education in growth-stunted Jamaican children: prospective cohort study.  Lancet. 2005 Nov 19;366(9499):1804-7.

  • Arthur dent

    It is well known in medical circles that placebos are often more effective than medical drugs, and that medical statistics are often 'forced to fit the result required.' for instance; Let's say that where only 150 of 1000 people had better results from drugs than from the placebo, but those 150 were in a small, specific age catagory of say 200 people, the medical claim that the drug was effective for 75% of people tested, is true, but a total lie overall. People use what works for them. If Holford's advice and viamins work for me, which they appear to, then I have greater faith in him than in my doctors, whose drugs have often been totally ineffective.  As far as I know, Jacques Rousseau has no beckground in nutrition whatsoever. he is just a contraversialist. Rather quote a person of integrity for your web page. Have fun.

  • Harris


    Your first statement is misleading. No drug can be registered unless there is proof that it is significantly more effective than placebo. Jacques Rousseau does not have a background in nutrition, but has expertise in dubious and false claims. I posted his article simply because he expresses a point better than I can. However I have deconstructed claims for one of Patrick Holford's products, using the science HE supplied, and showed it to be a lie.

    You are however free to believe and trust a scientist or a liar (some would say a scam artist).

  • Jo

    I have to agree with Arthur: what is Jacques Rousseau's nutritional background?
    I think it's utter snobbery to write someone off because they don't have credentials when it's very clear that their books on nutrition are thoroughly researched.
    That isn't to say I agree with all the nutritional paraphernalia that goes with it. People have forgotten how to eat. If a book on nutrition gets through to you; great. He advises a healthy diet. This is a good thing. If he wants to milk people further, than people need to wisen up. What I'd find more interesting, instead of calling Patrick Holford a quack, is to educate people on how utterly redundant it is to buy into detox fad diets when our livers and kidneys are doing it every second.

  • Harris


    Jo writes: " . . .very clear that their books on nutrition are thoroughly researched". I would disagree with this statement. Here is an example of how badly Holford applies his mind to research and then applies it to his arguments for "good nutrition":

  • Arthur dent

    I am looking for your comments on the following article:
    " The Institute of Medicine is finally acknowledging the toxic effects of mammogram radiation as a significant factor in the development of breast cancer; just one mammogram can expose you to the radiation equivalent of 1,000 chest x-rays
    Mammograms also carry an unacceptably high rate of false positives—up to six percent—which can lead to repeat screenings that expose you to even more radiation, as well as unnecessary medical procedures, including biopsies, surgery, and chemotherapy
    Your immune system is your greatest weapon against breast cancer; research now shows that 30 percent of breast tumours go away on their own, because a healthy immune system is so adept at eradicating cancer.
    In this light maybe it is time for you to stop knocking Holford so often and concentrate on what appears to be the disgusting medical industry.  On the other hand, possibly the Institute of medicine is a quack organisation. Your comments on this article would be most enlightening.

  • Harris

    I am not an expert on mammograms so cannot comment.

    I do not claim because Holford is a quack that orthodox medicine is by contrast good, safe, efficacious or always of integrity: I simply have chosen to focus on one area of pseudoscience, scams, etc., which appears to be far greater in this field than others. Other of my colleagues focus on the dishonourable conduct that may occur in orthodox medicine.


    I heard PATRICK Holford on TV 2day & was keen 2 get his books BUT decided to first google about him.Im now CONFUSED is he for REAL or QUACK . I am mild type2 Diabetic & was keen to stop my glucophage[] but now want some CLARITY …..
    TNX VEENA SINGH (Telephone number deleted)

  • Harris

    @Dr Veena
    To Holford’s supporters, he is an “international expert”. To scientists and researchers, he is someone who blends science with his personal views, writes best selling books, but simply gets a lot of his science and facts simply wrong. Here is an article that takes Holford’s supplied “evidence” that he claims proves one of his products and shows how badly he got everything wrong! In other words, this is not a personal opinion on Patrick Holford – it shows how he misinterprets actual studies!

  • Arthur Dent

    Dr. Veena Singhmbchb. I am not a doctor, but would advise you to get off Glucophase as quickly as possible. The people I know who have used it have had quite bad reactions. I believe it does huge damage. I do not know what Holford prescribes, and obviously Harris can let us know, but if you want to rid yourself of diabetes type 2 start by DRAMATICALLY cutting down on carbs: cereal, rice, pasta, bread, sugar, cakes, wine and fruit. Increase your vegetables just as dramatically, and increase your daily protein. From an exercise point of view, walk for 30-60 minutes every day. Those are my best pieces of non-medical, sensible advice that I have experienced and seen work with several people. I don’t conduct medical trials, but have seen 100% improvement in all my friends and acquaintances that have been diagnosed with having or near to having Diabetes 2. I would be interested to hear exactly what Holford prescribes that Harris proscribes?

  • Harris

    Science is starting to pay attention to an individual’s phenotype (“The observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences”).

    This means that each individual with diabetes needs to be assessed as an individual. One needs to be careful not to apply general principles to an individual who may be different from the “general” group. Arthur does give sound dietary advice but I believe that in an individual with diabetes, there is a high risk of diabetic complications, and therefore that it’s vital for that individual to discuss their own specific circumstances with their personal health care provider. That is assuming that the health care provider is up to date with recent scientific knowledge. Of course I include the requirement of a competent dietitian. You may have specific differences which requires an approach different from the general recommendations.

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