Celebrities and nutrition advice

Who do you trust for your health advice? This is something that’s been on our minds recently, in light of a couple of high-profile cases of celebrity health advice gone awry.

First we had the chef, Pete Evans (currently on our TV screens in the show My Kitchen Rules), who has become an evangelist for the paleo diet. He’s published books and done stage shows all about the diet, and has become very popular. However, his most recent book – about the paleo diet for babies and toddlers – was withdrawn from publication before it hit the shelves, after it was found that one of the recipes had the potential to seriously harm a baby, and possibly even cause death.

The second case was that of Belle Gibson, founder of The Whole Pantry, a hugely popular healthy cooking and wellness app and cookbook. Her story was that she had beaten aggressive cancer by eschewing conventional treatment and instead using natural therapies and organic food. The only problem was that the story was completely fabricated. It was discovered last month that she had made the whole thing up. She had never had cancer and lied about many aspects of her life. Subsequently her empire has come crashing down.

Then there are people like Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie star, who regularly offers diet and health advice, and has published healthy eating cookbooks based on various unproven theories such as detoxing, despite having no training in nutrition. And there are many, many more examples, especially in the world of social media. Gorgeous young things who glow with health and post shots of their perfect-looking healthy meals, green smoothies and workout-honed physiques. Many seem to come from the ‘it worked for me’ school of nutrition: no formal qualifications but lots of anecdotal advice.

I think that is okay, to a point. Some of it can even be inspiring. Just so long as we, as consumers, understand where the advice is coming from, and the implications of taking that advice. There’s nothing wrong with Pete Evans sharing his personal paleo journey; there’s a lot that’s good about the paleo diet when compared with the energy-dense and nutrient-poor diet consumed by many people. But the problem for me arises when people become blinkered to the possibility that there are other alternatives.

When you see someone – no matter how attractive or famous they are – saying that their way is THE ONLY way to eat for everyone – and also implying that anyone else offering health advice is wrong or deluded or even part of a conspiracy – it’s a real red flag.

Because of course there’s more than one way of eating to be healthy. The same way isn’t necessarily going to work for me as it is for you. A paleo diet – or a vegan diet, or a raw diet, or a low-carb diet – may be fantastic for some, but not at all workable for others. It worries me that some of the celebrity wellness warriors out there seem to be unaccepting of that. Pete Evans has a tendency to be almost like a religious leader in the way he talks and posts online (and has a history of deleting and banning people who even question his approach).

But science doesn’t work that way. No science-based nutrition practitioner would be arrogant enough to say they have the one and only answer.

A trained dietitian or registered nutritionist, for example, has years of training and ongoing professional development. But just as importantly, they also have a responsibility and an obligation to a professional body – which makes them accountable for any advice they may give.

A celebrity doesn’t have that. They are not accountable to anyone if you follow their advice and end up with a nutritional deficiency, or an eating disorder, or worse. And when you have people proposing alternative treatments for illnesses like cancer – the results could be much worse.

So by all means, let’s read and absorb a wide range of theories and information on health and wellness. But we mustn’t forget to use our critical thinking skills. And if it sounds too good to be true, or too extreme, it probably is.

First published: May 2015

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