There’s so much bad nutrition and wellness advice out there. (I mean, diets don’t work. Right off the bat, any weight loss program is ultimately a scam.) Sometimes it’s obvious: Celery juice won’t cure cancer (shameless plug for a HuffPost article I wrote). But sometimes, it’s a little bit tricker to tell the difference between a nutrition scam and actual science. For example, a diet like Whole30 might sound nutritious and evidence-based, even though it’s a full-on nutrition scam.
When you’re reading nutrition and wellness advice, there are a few red flags to look out for.
Are you listening to the Maintenance Phase podcast yet? If not, you should be. Hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon use common sense and ACTUAL evidence to debunk wellness and nutrition scams. (It’s also very funny.) They talk about a lot of the same things I write about for various outlets, and they’re great at really making it interesting and relevant.
Anyway. I was listening to their Celery Juice episode earlier today — which I’M QUOTED IN (ah!) although they only mention my article title not my name — and it gave me the idea for this post. They talk often about how most junk science wellness and nutrition scams have certain characteristics in common. So, to help you separate fact from fiction (or, scam from science), I decided to come up with a list of these red flags and how to spot them.
Ready? Here we go.
1. There’s limited evidence on the topic.
Have you noticed that wellness influencers tend to flock to certain topics. Lately, it seems like everyone is a “hormone expert” (more on that in an upcoming Outside column). “Gut health” is big, too.
What do these things have in common? They’re extremely under-researched. There’s a lot about hormones, the gut microbiome, and fasting that doctors, dietitians, scientists, and other health experts DON’T know yet. Unfortunately, this means that people who suffer from hormone-related conditions or digestive issues may have to work with their healthcare provider for a long time to figure out a solution that works. We don’t fully understand what causes or exacerbates these conditions, which means there’s no surefire way to give people relief.
Cue the grifters. Instead of encouraging people to find a doctor that they like and work on finding a real solution to their problem, influencers and untrained “experts” swoop in with their expensive, one-size-fits-all solutions. And because evidence is limited, it’s easy for them to take advantage of people’s confusion. They attract people who are at the end of their rope. They target people who have been living with Hashimoto’s/PCOS/infertility/IBS/bloating/fatigue/WHATEVER for years. There’s no evidence to say that their solutions work. But there are also no legitimate evidence-based solutions out there. So, they know that desperate people will give their programs a try.
Food and supplement companies are great at using manipulative marketing to sell unscientific products, too. In my GEM Vitamins review, I detail how the brand used Goop-like marketing to sell sub-par vitamins for $5.50 per day.
2. The advice is inflexible and one-size-fits-all.
Nothing will work for everyone. This is health science 101! All of our bodies are different. Yes, there are some general rules — eat fruits and vegetables, don’t drink too much alcohol, move — that do apply to the vast majority of people. But the same isn’t true for specific programs.
Take, for example, the advice to avoid dairy if you have acne. (Or, for that matter, to avoid dairy in general.) Yes, it’s true that dairy can increase the risk of acne in some people. But the idea that dairy is always bad, or that it will always cause acne, just isn’t supported by science. It’s a nutrition scam.
This 2018 meta analysis found that dairy consumption was associated with increased risk of acne. BUT, that doesn’t mean that dairy causes acne. It also doesn’t mean that quitting dairy will clear your skin. The authors also stated that the studies were kind of all over the place in terms of their designs and their results. And, they said, it’s likely that other studies found no link between dairy and acne, but weren’t published because that’s not an interesting result. (This is called publication bias, and it’s a problematic phenomenon. It means that a study showing an association between two things, like dairy and acne, would be published, whereas a study that showed no association would NOT be published. See the problem?)
In reality, good health advice is never one-size-fits-all. It’s also never so clear cut. A strict rule (“don’t eat dairy”) is easy to sell as a solution, but not very effective. A strict rule is pretty much always a nutrition scam. Good health advice can be personalized, and takes each person’s unique body, lifestyle, and circumstances into account.
3. There are so many rules and caveats, and the advice only “works” if you follow them to a tee.
This one might be the most egregious. Wellness and nutrition scams often come with lots of rules and disclaimers. “It only works if you *completely* avoid X ingredient for 30 days.” “The juice only detoxes if it’s totally fresh and has no additives.” “You must eat exactly XX grams of the food at exactly 6 AM, otherwise it’s useless!”
That’s total bullshit, designed to make you blame yourself for “failure,” instead of realizing that it’s the nutrition scam advice that failed YOU. If the standards for something “working” are impossibly high, then that something is almost certainly a scam.
Some examples? Whole30 says their program only works if you completely avoid all of their forbidden foods. That’s nearly impossible. Things like sugar, soy, canola oil, and other off-limits ingredients are found in so many common foods. They say that if you accidentally consume even trace amounts, you have to start the 30-day program all over again. That’s garbage — unless you have a severe allergy, trace amounts of anything don’t really do anything. It’s not an evidence-based rule, it’s a trick designed to make you blame yourself for not getting the “results” you were promised.
4. The person giving advice has no real credentials.
This one should go without saying, but it doesn’t. So, I’ll say it: If someone has no real nutrition credentials (RD or RDN, which are actually the same thing), health credentials (MD, DO, NP, PA, etc), or education (an actual degree) you shouldn’t take their health advice. Sure, their personal health journey might be motivating. And yes, they might be reciting evidence-based advice.
But without proper training, it’s hard to understand how advice might be harmful. An example: Before my masters in public health with registered dietitian training (MPH RD), I didn’t think enough about how nutrition advice might cause harm. Giving people “clean eating” meal plans, even if the recipes are nutritionally sound, can cause serious anxiety and fear around food. That’s harmful. Promoting juice cleanses, even if a few days of juice probably won’t hurt, is elitist and confusing. Telling someone they can manage their Hashimoto’s disease through diet is incredibly harmful, because it’s just not true.
My take? Take wellness influencers’ advice with a huge grain of salt, or don’t take it at all. Even if what they say isn’t a true nutrition scam, they’re probably not giving you the whole picture of how their advice might help or harm your health.
A nutrition scam isn’t harmless.
I know, I know — nutrition scams often seem harmless. You might think, “what does it hurt to try a Whole30,” or “I know that juice fasts don’t work, but I like doing them anyway.” And ultimately, what you eat and don’t eat is entirely up to you.
But here’s why these nutrition scams aren’t harmless: They shape your view of food and wellness in a way that’s unsustainable, unattainable, and stress-inducing. Whole30 tricks you into believing that certain (common!) foods are very bad for you, when that’s just not true. Juice cleanses leave you very hungry, which means you’ll likely binge afterwards — then, you’ll feel guilty and tell yourself that you need another juice cleanse. “Easy” weight loss programs make you feel like a failure when you inevitably don’t lose weight long-term, but really the chance for success was miniscule.
And of course, nutrition scams make wellness seem much more difficult than it is.
I’m not saying that wellness is easy for everyone. Many people have limited access to nutritious foods. Many people live in poverty, or live with the stress of barely scraping by. For these people, nutrition and wellness likely aren’t a top priority, and that’s understandable. (It’s up to those of us with privilege to make wellness more accessible to others. It’s not a marginalized person’s responsibility to prioritize wellness against the odds.)
But for those of us who can afford to fall for nutrition scams? They’re just not helpful. In fact, they promote the opposite of wellness. They create anxiety and fear around food. They force restriction on us, which often leads to feeling obsessed and out of control around food.
If you’re struggling with food obsession, dieting, or a fixation with wellness, my free newsletter can help! Every week, I debunk nutrition and wellness scams, and give advice for how to end food obsession and dieting for good.