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Selling Wellness

Lessons from across the ditch warn us to vet online health advocates carefully

The potentially lucrative world of selling wellness has hit a rough patch in Australia recently, where the death of “Wellness Warrior” Jess Ainscough and the un-masking of The Whole Pantry’s Belle Gibson as a fraud have seen an industry previously thought of as earnest and wholesome undergo a huge shake-up.

Ainscough, a beautiful and articulate young woman, passed away in February aged 30 — seven years after a diagnosis of epithelioid sarcoma, a slow-growing cancer. She eschewed conventional medicine, immersing herself in the Gerson Therapy, a controversial alternative treatment that involves hourly cold-pressed juices and several coffee enemas a day.

One can’t even begin to imagine how scared and desperate Ainscough must’ve been. But as the one-time online editor of Dolly magazine blogged her apparently good progress to an ever-growing tribe of loyal disciples, it became quickly apparent how marketable a commodity she was.

She gained a qualification as a health coach through the widely criticised Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York — detractors question the user-pays nature of its worldwide correspondence programme — and launched several ebooks, including a “Lifestyle Transformation Package” that retailed for nearly AU$975 ($1015). (Jess blogged that “‘I can’t afford it’ is one of the most dangerous and disempowering things you can ever say”.)

Similarly, Belle Gibson was young (actually, as an irate lynch mob were to find out, three years younger than she’d claimed to be) pretty and full of life, despite a multitude of apparent setbacks. Gibson claimed to be living with an inoperable brain tumour and multiple secondaries, yet she was able to remain the picture of good health thanks to her best-selling app The Whole Pantry, downloaded over 300,000 times.

As it turned out Gibson was the kale-loving, Namaste-preaching equivalent of Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. Shortly after Gibson blogged wretchedly about her friend Ainscough’s death, Victorian police were called in to investigate allegations that charity donations promised to several organisations had gone astray.

Gibson went into hiding until two weeks ago when she admitted “exclusively” to the Australian Woman’s Weekly that she’s never had cancer, or indeed any of the medical conditions she blogged about. Apple and Penguin have pulled The Whole Pantry app and cookbook and there are numerous Facebook groups, many made up of cancer survivors and their families (not to mention journalists), baying for her blood.

It’s safe to say we Kiwis are, as a nation, much more measured than Australians in our online presence. But that’s not to say we’re entirely without ego. Facebook and Instagram are rife with (often) beautiful young women who woo their followers by suggesting they too can be young and beautiful if they only eliminate X, Y and Z from their diets, drink their greens and perhaps snap artfully angled photos of their Lululemon-clad legs looking down upon their Nike runners.

All harmless messages when taken in moderation, to be sure. We all know we need to move more and eat more greens, so seeking inspiration for interesting green smoothies or new workouts can hardly hurt. Or can it?

With more and more people qualifying as “health coaches” and nutritionists (often from the aforementioned Institute of Integrative Nutrition) and seeking to build their brand via social media rather than running client consultations, is it possible that the huge amount of information out there is indeed doing more harm than good? After all, when we visit a nutritionist or health professional they are looking at us. With social media and blogs our gaze goes outward to them instead — it’s all topsy-turvy.

“Everybody’s very different. You have to look at each person as a whole,” says Nellie Pigot, a nutritionist and naturopath who trained in the UK and has been practising since 1999. “You can’t make one statement to fit all, it could be dangerous to try and do so.” Pigot likens the gathering of information off the internet to Chinese whispers. “There’s so much contradictory information out there. Often when people come and see me it’s because they’re so confused and they want to be set straight — everyone’s becoming an expert.”

Katherine Lonsdale-Cooper from The Tonic Room, a naturopathic store in Auckland, concurs. “A lot of the time people come to us with their own pre-conceived ideas about what’s right because they’ve received misinformation online. It makes it a lot harder for us to actually steer them on the right track.”

She also cautions: “It’s easy to be wooed by a pretty face and good photography. And what I find is in order to build both a following and revenue — in lieu of income derived from client consultations — people align themselves with brands that on an ethical level they may not feel is right. A lot of these ‘health professionals’ are pushing brands that, for me, there’s just no way I would recommend to my clients at all.”

Indeed, a recent example here is a health blogger who posted her marathon essentials, which included, among the many branded items, a bottle of soft drink. Soon after, a “healthy eating” site blogged a recipe for a marinade using the same soft drink. It’s very hard to prove what are paid advertisements in this unregulated industry but when the soft drink company takes these posts and uses them as “sponsored” Facebook ads on their page, we could assume it’s most likely a transactional relationship.

Both Pigot and Lonsdale-Cooper believe the internet can be a fun place to share inspiration and look at delicious pictures of food, but caution against seeking information on text-light mediums such as Instagram. They urge people to research the qualifications of anyone claiming to be an expert. “Many schools are affiliated to universities,” advises Pigot.

GP Dr Jodie O’Sullivan backs up this advice. “The public needs to check qualifications and if necessary investigate the institution the qualifications have come from. A three-month nutrition course is not the same as a four-year degree from Otago or Massey University, which is often followed by a Masters degree, and membership and supervision by a governed body.”

She points out that health professionals such as physiotherapists, dieticians and doctors have professional standards that must be met. “They are covered by a professional body and if the standards are not maintained they may be disciplined or struck off.”

On the other side of the iPhone, Bonnie Sumner loves Instagram for the sense of community it gives her. Through her vegan account @wholeplantkitchen she can connect with like-minded people all over the world. However, while she’s modestly successful (boasting over 7000 followers) she has no intention of turning it into a business. That’s not to say the overtures aren’t there. “I’ve been approached by people who’ve asked to regram my posts — for a fee!”

Sumner stresses the importance of having clear views around what you’re prepared to look at on social media. “I won’t follow any accounts that have lots of photos of people’s bodies. I find that really demoralising and offensive.”

She points out that the online vegan community skews young and while that’s great in many ways (“Healthy living isn’t something I thought about as an 18-year-old, I was disgusting!”) a lot of it ends up revolving around body consciousness, turning it from something healthy into something destructive. Sumner also admits to providing a heavily edited view of her life. “I certainly don’t post pictures of the times I order Hell Pizza!”

While we may not suffer the same sledging tactics as our neighbours across the ditch, we should still be cautious to take social media musings with a grain of salt. Or, rather, a grain of quinoa. (Or no grains at all if you’re #paleo.)

Check credentials, be wary of endorsements and stay away from users whose message makes you feel shame or guilt about either your body or your lifestyle. If the internet inspires you to drink bountiful greens and embrace a wholefood diet you’ll undoubtedly be better off for it. But be aware of qualifying the credentials of any health professional you seek advice from.

Ultimately, keep context in mind and don’t be blinded by beauty. As Dr O’Sullivan warns, “If the same blogger stood on a box in Aotea Square with a box of coffee enemas to sell claiming they were a cure for brain cancer, they would be laughed at or arrested as a public nuisance — but put it in a blog with some clever graphics and it all changes.”

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