The Australian Women's Weekly
The cult of wellness
The “wellness” industry generates trillions of dollars but is it making any of us well, or just an unregulated, untested con?
Morning sunlight fills a bright and airy bedroom as a mobile phone’s celestial alarm marks the start of the day. A hand reaches out to tap it off with manicured fingernails that are shiny and pink. Then a dewy-skinned Jennifer Aniston bounces out of bed and stretches in her gently rumpled, white linen robe, before padding downstairs for ‘breakfast’.
“Collagen supports our bodies from the inside out,” she says as she adds a hefty scoop of white powder to a pot of black coffee she has made from freshly ground beans. “When we feel supported from within, we feel our best.”
Jen does some yoga. Runs on her treadmill. Decisively strikes a line out of a script with a pencil while sitting on a big soft rain cloud of a sofa. She’s radiant, but relatable. Fit, but cerebral. She’s everything the wellness industry promises we can be, and all for $29 a month. (The brand behind the ad offers a subscription service.) It’s a lovely story, but there’s just one problem.
It doesn't give you anything you can't get from food, says pre-eminent nutritionist Rosemary Stanton.
“Collagen is just the latest supplement that is supposed to give you smooth skin and help your muscles and all the rest of it, and they sell it for huge prices. It doesn’t go down through your stomach into your intestines and get magically absorbed up into the wrinkles around your eyes. People have very little idea of digestion. They think things zoom to a particular part of the body.”
The collagen powder sales pitch goes like this: collagen provides our skin and connective tissue with its strength and elasticity. As we age, our body becomes less efficient at producing it. Adding powdered collagen to our food will replenish our stores of it, making us appear youthful and feel stronger.
Except it won’t, Dr Stanton says. She points to research by Laureate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Clare Collins, which found that what little evidence there is that collagen supplements are good for your skin is funded by the people who sell them.
“Amino acids needed to make collagen can be found in other foods containing protein,” Professor Collins wrote in The Conversation. “Rather than spending a lot of money on collagen supplements, spend it on healthy food. You will get better value in terms of your health and wellbeing in the long-term.”
But apples and broccoli are hard to monetise, and therein lies the paradox of the promise of wellness.
Dr Stanton gives a sigh of weary resignation. “It’s a bit like when people take antioxidant supplements. You have no idea what you’re taking. Which antioxidant is it? Is it one you don’t get enough of? Nobody has a clue. But if you say, ‘It’s got antioxidants’, it must be good … The research that’s done on antioxidants is all done on fruit flies.”
Dr Stanton has been busting pseudo-scientific
health myths for more than five decades but the celebrity-driven, Insta-era wellness craze has turned a trickle of misinformation into an eruption of probiotic, activated, alkalised, rainbowcoloured, well, … goop.
To be fair to Jen, she’s not alone in lending her reputation to strange and inscrutable health claims. Supermodel Miranda Kerr spruiks heart-shaped rose quartz discs that she says have beauty and healing benefits “such as clearing the complexion and preventing wrinkles”. Elle MacPherson has her own brand of elixirs and powdered boosters. And of course, the high priestess of self-care, Gwyneth Paltrow, has built a beige-coloured kingdom on the premise that a jade vagina egg will bring you spiritual renewal. Collagen martinis were a hot menu item at her 2018 Goop wellness summit, which acolytes paid upwards of $500 to attend. Ticket prices topped out at $4500. Wellness is big business.
Gwyneth’s Goop brand is reported to be worth $250 million in an industry that is turning over an estimated $4.5 trillion (2018 figures) and accounts for 5.3 per cent of global economic activity, although this data, compiled by Global Wellness Institute, doesn’t take in the thousands of lone operators selling coconut-oil bliss balls through their Instagram accounts. Many of these selfproclaimed wellness warriors signal their values with words like purity, goddess, earth, mamma and mermaid, and embody everything that makes people who work in public health edgy. They’re vague, unregulated and have a global reach.
“Wellness is an ethereal concept that is unattainable in the real world. You might feel well on occasion, but you can never reach a state of wellness because there is always something else that you can improve,” Dr Brad McKay writes in Fake Medicine: Exposing the Wellness Crazes, Cons and Quacks Costing us our Health.
At one end, wellness encompasses day spas and workplace yoga, eating more leafy greens and getting enough sleep. At the other end, it’s crystal
The wellness industry is estimated to turn over $4.5 trillion
elixirs, vitamin-infused IVs and powdered “immunity boosters” at
$129 a pack.
“It did start as this idea of being allowed to indulge and invest in your wellbeing, and I think that’s a lovely idea,” molecular nutritionist Dr Emma Beckett says. “But when that becomes hyper-competitive and [involves] this idea that we need to spend money on it, that’s really the flip side of what we need it to be. I think it has become corrupted, and I think anywhere money can be made, people are going to find ways to make money.”
The drive for profits has taken over, she says, and enterprises large and small have found fertile ground in what Dr McKay describes as the “pressure of needing to maximise your fitness, productivity and enjoyment of life”.
Where it becomes really concerning is deep in the internet rabbit warren, where health advice is more specific and less credible. Claims of “celery juice cured my cancer” abound. Facts are bent out of shape and phrases such as “may help” or “can boost” create false equivalencies between lab findings and products people are being told to ingest.
At the more extreme end, the correlation between wholefoods and healing made headlines with cancer fraud Belle Gibson. Jess Ainscough died from cancer after she withdrew from traditional treatment in favour of juices and wholefoods. And the “food is medicine” ethos endures in the world of wellness. Sarah Stevenson used her popular vlog to broadcast her belief that a healthy diet cured her cervical dysplasia in 2018. She cloaked her claims in disclaimers before describing how she rid herself of pre-cancerous cells.
“Sarah may as well have claimed she made the sun come up this morning,” Dr McKay wrote in Fake Medicine. He
provides a three-page explanation of dysplasia and says Sarah’s proclamation is “extremely irresponsible”.
“A lot of these people are really charismatic so this is one of the problems – they can sell an idea really well,” he adds.
“What the wellness industry is really selling is hope and the idea that if you buy these things you will look like the people who are marketing them,” Dr Beckett explains.
Moreover, the alternative health space relies heavily on trust. Celebrity spokespeople and online influencers can feel like real friends to us. “And along the way we forget they are primarily sales people,” Dr McKay says. According to news site Vox, people interact with content posted by influencers 32 times more often than they do with content produced by brands, which is why doctors and nutritionists get so frustrated when they see influencers and celebrities misusing their very real power.
Women & wellness
As someone who suffered for years with undiagnosed sleep disorder, narcolepsy with cataplexy, Dr McKay knows how alluring the confidence of a wellness guru can be. In his GP clinic, he frequently sees patients whose naturopaths have told them they have “adrenal fatigue”.
“Adrenal fatigue is not a diagnosis. Doctors don’t tell anyone they have adrenal fatigue,” Dr McKay says. “It basically means you’re stressed … we’re all stressed!”
The wellness industry is ready with a solution. “There’s a whole range of supplements that are recommended for adrenal fatigue, it’s like curing a fictitious problem,” he says.
Marketing is always responding to a perceived need. But there’s something else driving patients, in particular women, into the arms of the wellness warriors.
“Historically women haven’t been treated very well in the medical profession,” Dr McKay explains. “It’s still a male-dominated profession.” Women might not have felt welcome or listened to in mainstream medical practices. “So they might go to more integrative or complimentary clinics which are designed to attract women but then have a whole lot of kooky stuff that’s mixed in with the proper medicine. So it’s really hard to determine what you’re getting.”
This is a theme that runs throughout Gwyneth’s messaging around Goop, which she says is for “anyone who’s looking to have some autonomy around health”. In her New York Times opus on the Goop cultural phenomenon, investigative reporter Taffy Brodesser-Akner opines: “I know women who’ve been dismissed by their doctors for being lazy and careless and depressed and downright crazy. Was it any wonder that they would start to seek help from sources that assumed that their symptoms weren’t all in their head?”
Well exactly, says Dr McKay. GPs are time poor, but a “holistic” practitioner might spend a whole hour with you. “My sister went to some kooky clinic in Melbourne and she was told to have colour therapy,” Dr McKay says. She was sceptical but decided to give it a try. As she was lying in a yellow room someone came in with a clipboard and said, ‘Okay, let’s go through all the vitamins you want to buy from us’.” Then she felt obliged to buy vitamins. “She was this captive audience. It can be a really corrupt industry from that perspective.”
The superfood cult
Wellness can be as benign as a rose quartz face roller or as wackadoo as cockroach milk. (Yes, cockroach milk.) But by far the most worrying practice in the eyes of Dr Beckett and Dr Stanton are the extreme diets that outlaw whole food groups, and sacrifice long-term health goals for short-term gains. For example low-carb usually equates to low fibre, says Dr Beckett. “You don’t want to trade fitting into a nice dress now for colorectal cancer later on,” she warns.
Dr Stanton says the zeal with which advocates and influencers tout the benefits of these diets is worrying. “I think it becomes like a religion to them,” she says. Dr Stanton grew up in a cult and says she’s hyper-sensitive to that prescriptive way of thinking. “It’s so like some of the wacky religious cults when people get this idea that you must have this purity in your food and you must eat this supplement,” she says.
She’s not knocking religious faith, but she’s recognising a pattern of thought and behaviour: sugar is sinful. “People see the superfoods as their saviour.” It distorts important nutrition information.
The concept of “superfoods” is “absolutely a marketing construct,”
Dr Beckett says. “It’s not a term that’s used scientifically. It’s not a term that really has any meaning.”
She gives the example of the feted acai berry which, it turns out, has the same effect on the level of antioxidants in your blood as apple sauce. Plus, you need to eat half a kilo of the stuff to see those benefits. Plus, they’re not necessarily benefits.
“What seems to put a superfood out there is having a sexy backstory and a high price tag,” Dr Beckett says. “They make people think there’s a single answer when really variety is best. People think everyday fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as superfoods, when that’s just not true.”
In a summer instalment for an Instagram account that favours a palette of azure, fuchsia and yellow, a woman with blonde tresses advises how to make a nourishing breakfast bowl that’s “full of passion” and “tastes like sunshine”. The ingredients include passionfruit cubes by Pitaya Foods Superfruits (illuminating plant power, $69.99), Unicorn Superfoods Tropicana blend ($29.95), EarthChimp protein shake ($27.99) and Go Raw sprouted seed coconut clusters ($44.99). The smattering of tags that follow the recipe herald it as plantbased, nutrient-dense, healthy-living, real-food that will “feed your glow”. The cost of the ingredients totals $183.92, and that doesn’t include the blueberries and coconut flakes artfully arranged on top.
“God, they really are full of so many claims they’re not allowed to make,” Dr Stanton says of the ingredients.
The myths surrounding these products’ supposed virtues thrive because they are based on a kernel of truth. Many of the touted benefits of coconut oil are based on the incorrect assumption coconut oil behaves in the same way as MTC oil, which has been shown to assist with weight loss. MTC oil is made up of caprylic and capric acid, which are both present in small amounts in coconut oil. But “the two products are not equivalent and you can’t switch the findings of one to the other,” Dr Stanton says.
This marketing sleight of hand is behind many wellness claims. “It becomes twisted in the storytelling and the marketing. They’re lying by omission,” Dr Beckett says. Besides, there’s nobody to police the claims. Dr Stanton says big brands tend to monitor each other but smaller brands fly under the radar. “There’s nobody who’s the watchdog.”
The current system relies on concerned citizens writing to their