Dr John Briffa Won’t Answer a Simple Question

Since Horizon Sugar vs. Fat was broadcast on the 30th January its generated a huge amount of debate and criticism, most notably from the advocates of low carb diets who perceived this programme as a biased attack on what they believe is the healthiest diet.

One of these was low carb advocate Dr John Briffa. Amongst a number of entirely valid criticisms about methodology and experimental design, he raises what is perhaps the most important one

The fundamental problem with this programme is that it essentially dressed up anecdote as science. It’s not a good idea to judge the impact of different diets by testing them on a limited number of people in this way.

I’m sure anyone interested in following the best evidence would find it hard to disagree with his stance. But is he consistent in his application of this principle to anecdotes which are favourable to low carb diets? I thought I would ask him using a well known example.

Sam Feltham is a low carb advocate who carried out a bizarre overfeeding ‘challenge‘ which he has used as part of his sales patter ever since to convince people that ‘a calorie is not a calorie’. I am not aware that Dr Briffa has ever commented on this but as it was an entirely uncontrolled n=1 experiment with many flaws it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that Dr Briffa would be quick to also condemn this anecdote dressed up as science.

So I asked him on twitter.

I got no response, so I posted on the blog and that comment has been left held in moderation ever since.

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I also posted on another blog post assuming he had missed it, but it appears Dr Briffa wishes to avoid the dilemma answering would cause him.

There is of course a serious point this illustrates.

Like alternative medicine, dietary advice is a field populated by a ‘community’ of people who support and promote each other, even though they may hold diverse and sometimes conflicting views on the science and the quality of the evidence. Criticism of the views held by peers, or of their activities is something which simply isn’t done – you’re all in this together – and sometimes this means keeping quiet and being a hypocrite.

I’d be very happy however, for Dr Briffa to prove me wrong.

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11 thoughts on “Dr John Briffa Won’t Answer a Simple Question

  1. Hi.

    That’s a shame, as I’d always considered Dr. Briffa as moderate in the world of low-carb. There are increasing numbers of very-low-carb, very-high-fat zealots on the internet. I used to be quite gung-ho on very-low-carb diets after getting good results with the Atkins diet, until I found that I got even better results by reducing my insulin resistance. I’m now annoying the zealots, as is Evelyn “Carb-Sane” Kocur!

    Cheers, Nige

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I think Briffa is at the moderate end of the spectrum when it comes to low-carb diets.

      To give him credit where due, he does at least appear to try and ground the debate on the actual science and on the results of trials – we may disagree on the quality of these trials and their interpretation, but that’s a healthy debate in my book.

      His words about Horizon however ring hollow when his actions flatly contradict them.

      Only a few weeks after this post he attended the not so glitzy UK premier of Cereal Killers, a documentary about yet another experiment which appears to draw sweeping conclusions about diet based on an n=1. I think he even appears in it!

      He sat uncomfortably at the Q&A session as Sam Feltham recited his 5,000 calorie challenged to the adoring masses.

      Did he mention that both were “anecdote dressed up as science” and point out that they were essentially useless?

      Of course not.

      He kept quiet and hoped no one would notice his hypocritical behaviour.

      Obviously I don’t think it is his role to police every diet guru who comments on LC diets and I don’t expect him to flog members of the LC community in public.

      But as someone who claims to be committed to the evidence – and thus reaps the benefits of this reputation – he could at least not actively participate in promoting nonsense, and when asked politely acknowledge the problems within the community he is a part of.

      He talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk. Shame.

      1. People are *still* using Sam Feltham’s experiment as “proof” that a Calorie is not a Calorie.

        Calories In = Calories entering mouth – Calories exiting anus
        Calories out = BMR + TEA + NEAT + TEF

        Feltham didn’t measure Calories exiting anus (which would have been high, considering the large amount of raw almonds that he was eating each day) and he didn’t measure Calories out. Therefore, his claim that a Calorie is not a Calorie is invalid.

        At least Richard David Feinman is no longer making that claim, as per http://feinmantheother.com/2012/03/19/bray-et-al-shows-that-a-calorie-is-not-a-calorie-and-that-dietary-carbohydrate-controls-fat-storage/ 🙂

          1. This post is about the use of poor quality self experiments and TV trials to advocate the efficacy of diets. Do you have anything meaningful to contribute on that topic, or did you just come along to cut and paste tedious tropes?

  2. you all neutritional experts are agents of Food Mafia and fool the people, the simple truth is dont live for eating, eat for living

  3. My understanding (via a third party) is that someone in the John Briffa family is unwell hence his disappearance from the media at present?

    1. Hi Joy,

      I have it in my head that John’s partner had given birth around that time so I always assumed this was the reason. If he does indeed have a relative who is unwell, I sincerely hope they get well soon and that John can return to the media.

      However this post, my tweets to him and comments I left on his blog were written in February 2014 and he continued to post on various media until around August 2014.

      Also it doesn’t explain why my comments on two separate blogs were held in moderation but other later ones on those blogs, and others continued to be approved by him.

  4. I have read the exchanges with interest. Regardless of different views or interpretation all I can tell you is that I followed Briffa’s doctrine to the letter and lost a remarkable two and a half stone! He talked the talk and I walked the walk and it work. Best money I ever spent on his book.

  5. Hi Stewart

    Sorry for the lack of reply.

    Most diets – while people adhere to them work – so I’m not surprised. If it worked for you I’m glad it did, losing two and a half stone is some achievement!

    However my post is about Dr Briffa endorsing poor quality evidence when it suits, but criticising others for doing the same thing i.e. being a hypocrite.

    So I’m not sure what the success of his advice has to do with that topic?

    Regards
    Slipp

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