Most of you reading this story didn’t grow up with social media. Most didn’t even grow up with mobile phones. School lunches often included gluten-rich ham and salad sandwiches, while dinner consisted of a meat ’n’ three veg combo, usually in the form of a casserole or pasta dish.
When Mum got fancy, she did brown rice, and sometimes we had ice-cream for sweets. Serious food allergies were rare, exercise was done in an old t-shirt and shorts and, when we got sick, we made an appointment to see a doctor or, if you were a bit out there, a naturopath.
"Our Instagram feeds are full of it... people #grateful of their carefully-curated-yet-spontaneous-ish nourishing post-training bowl, snapped on their sunny rear deck. "
There was no such thing as ‘wellness’. You could be healthy, or not. A green smoothie was a practical joke to be played on younger sisters, kale was fed to cattle, and the ancient seed quinoa was blissfully unaware of its impending stardom.
Fast forward to 2015. We talk about ‘superfoods’ (a word that is not much more than a marketing term) in passing conversation, we have survived a kale seed shortage (phew), we favour coconut everything, and the people of Bolivia now struggle to buy their own quinoa due to its inflated local price.
Our Instagram feeds are full of it. There are yogis performing morning headstands on rocks near the beach, and people #grateful of their carefully-curated-yet-spontaneous-ish nourishing post-training bowl, snapped on their sunny rear deck.
It’s hard to decide whether to do 5:2, full Paleo or raw vegan, let alone work out when to squeeze in a juice cleanse. We are obsessed with health – how to be well, feel good and look better. But how did this happen?
Enter social media and a new breed of wellness bloggers who, with little or no qualifications, have literally made millions from spruiking their approach to health. It’s usually with a good personal story, fresh young looks and the valid disclaimer “this is what has worked for me”, which conveniently allows them to dodge the requisite training that we would normally expect from a medical practitioner.
But turn to them we do. We want to live long and well, but ultimately we want a slice of their sunny, relaxed, balanced, energetic and healthful lives. There is an undercurrent that implies conventional medicine has let us down, and that serious illness can be cured exclusively by diet and lifestyle. Which in some cases, it absolutely can.
There is nothing wrong with using social media to impart a health message; it is an important communication route for a huge number of university-trained nutritionists and dieticians, naturopaths and other highly trained health professionals.
"When unqualified voices present information as whole, complete and truthful, and when the person doing it is so slim and beautiful, it is easy to fall in love."
And there are many bloggers out there doing a great job in encouraging people to live a healthier life – Sarah Wilson from I Quit Sugar goes to great lengths to point out she does what works for her, has a board of professionals she consults with, and is currently working with Sydney University to quantify her ‘quit sugar’ message.
However, in our willingness to try anything in the pursuit of wellness, we forget to fact-check what is being presented to us, and when unqualified voices present information as whole, complete and truthful, and when the person doing it is so slim and beautiful, it is easy to fall in love.
Marieke Rodenstein is a qualified dietician and nutritionist with hundreds of clinical hours under her belt.
“Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it works across the board,” she says. “You only get a feel for what might be right for someone once you have seen lots and lots of people, and you see people for follow-ups. I would never put out blanket plans about ‘this will work for you’.
“Health history, ancestry, attitude – all of those things can influence how someone responds to advice you give. Health bloggers have a huge responsibility. They need to understand how others perceive what they say and what they do.”
There have been some spectacular examples of this going wrong recently. Belle Gibson, who is reported to have made more than $1m from her The Whole Pantry app and fundraising efforts, was revealed as a fraud in early 2015.
Belle claimed to have managed a range of cancers through diet and, as a pretty, single mother in her 20s, we fell in love with her story (I bought the app and donated to her charity drive). Penguin gave her a book deal too, and Apple planned to put her app on its Apple Watch. No one ever thought to ask for proof of her illness.
Another example is the tragic death of Jessica Ainscough, The Wellness Warrior, who garnered a large online following when, after a year of chemotherapy, she eschewed a radical amputation of her arm and went with Gerson Therapy (a treatment involving a strict diet, supplements and coffee enemas). Jess went into remission but the cancer came back and claimed her life before she turned 30.
The unspoken aspect of all these perfect images of young, attractive
people in workout gear is that it is often just another way of hiding dieting, and managing control issues around food. If you tell people you are eating a particular way “for health reasons”, no one can argue with you for putting your health first.
“Unfortunately, I see the effects of diets that promote the reduction or elimination of specific foods and/or food groups on a daily basis, in my private practice where I work with people with disordered eating (DE) and eating disorders (EDs),” says counsellor Paula Kotowicz.
“Restrictive and eliminating diets can be validating. This is because they are seen as being very positive and responsible efforts to undertake, thus they can be very validating in terms of ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ to people who are prone to developing DE and EDs. Our society values promotes, rewards and admires – almost above all else – slimness, self-control, health and self-motivation and determination.”
Naturopath Kelly Epskamp has felt the wrath of followers on her Instagram account after posting information that dispels some of the popular wellness tales. She has lost followers and received angry emails when she pointed out that chia seeds are not a good source of Omega-3 for children, and that coconut water is not an appropriate way to rehydrate an ill child.
“The World Health Organisation has guidelines for potassium, sodium and glucose content for rehydration, and because people have been scared in terms of preservatives (which I warn about, too), they turn elsewhere,” Kelly says. “But when it comes to a medical need, such as my child losing bodily fluids faster than they can replace them, you have to look past that.
“There are a lot of lounge-room practitioners in social media, even with qualifications, but they have never treated a real person in a clinic environment and never had to achieve an outcome,” she says. “I’m accountable to patients every week that need to see improvements in their health. Where’s the motivation to improve your knowledge if you’re not accountable or wanting to see improvements in the people sitting in front of you?”