Celebrities endorse a slew of diets, supplements, exercise routines, and other health fads. Here’s how to dodge their influence.
Timothy Caulfield is the research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta in Canada. He is the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness and the host and co-producer of “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death,” a documentary series on alternative health practices. Caulfield spoke to Nutrition Action’s Caitlin Dow in June.
Q: Which health trends endorsed by celebrities concern you?
A: There are so many to choose from. Without a doubt, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have had an impact on the anti-vax movement. But some of my favorite examples of celebrity-endorsed, science-free bunk therapies include colonics, intravenous vitamin therapies, supplements, and homeopathy.
Celebrity culture has also pushed unproven diets that have stuck. An example I love is the gluten-free diet.
Here’s a diet that’s essential for people with celiac disease, which is about 1 percent of the population. Even if you include the more controversial diagnosis of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you add only a few percentage points more.
But depending on the survey, up to 30 percent of the population has bought into this diet. That’s huge. Despite the fact that it has been debunked, people go gluten-free because they believe it’s healthier and will help them lose weight.
Q: Do people actually trust celebrities for health advice?
A: I think it’s more that celebrities have influence. But across the board, trust in traditional sources like physicians and scientists has declined.
And some people don’t feel satisfied with their interactions with conventional healthcare providers. That makes space for alternative perspectives.
Q: What about celebrity doctors like Dr. Oz and Deepak Chopra?
A: In some ways, they’re worse because they’re more trusted because they’re part of a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to adopting a science-informed approach. But they’re often spreading nonsense.
Q: Do people think that they’re not influenced by celebrities?
A: Yes. Many people would say that only gullible people are influenced by pop culture. And that’s not true.
You may not follow them or pay attention to them, but because celebrities dominate pop culture and can circulate these crazy ideas very efficiently, they influence all of us.
One way is the mere exposure effect. It’s how fake news works. Just being exposed to a crazy idea enough times can make it seem plausible.
Q: And celebrities might represent the kind of person you want to be?
A: That’s right. It’s called the Prius effect. “I’m the kind of person who drives a Prius.” Or, in terms of health, “I’m the kind of person who drinks lemon water, practices yoga, and eats only organic food.”
Once our choices become part of our identity, it’s easy to find information that confirms our views.
So you may not think that Gwyneth Paltrow is a good source of information, but she may speak to your personal brand. And that can open the door to buying into her off-the-wall ideas like bee-sting therapy and vaginal steaming.
Q: Do celebrities have greater sway over the public than in the past?
A: My research is trying to measure just how much impact celebrities have.
But we know that how we interact with celebrities has changed, thanks largely to social media. Celebrities own social media. Kim Kardashian has 145 million Instagram followers, whereas the World Health Organization has just under two million. Celebrities have a massive cultural footprint.
And this isn’t a picture of Grace Kelly on the cover of Life magazine. It’s a celebrity posting a picture on Instagram from her bathroom. We feel closer to them, and we feel like they’re speaking to us.
Q: Has that changed advertising?
A: Yes. Companies advertise through celebrities on social media because the interaction feels authentic, not like a normal ad, even though it’s completely curated. And messaging that feels authentic is powerful.
There’s also interesting research suggesting that people trust and are influenced by someone like them or who they can relate to. So the advertising that you see on Instagram via celebrities plays to that. Many don’t even look like ads. They may seem like an unpaid endorsement.
Q: Many celebrities, like quarterback Tom Brady, are pushing diets that are high in fruits and vegetables and low in junk food. So what’s the harm?
A: Brady claims that his diet boosts energy, enhances athletic performance, and speeds recovery.
He makes it sound like you have to adopt an extreme approach that’s restrictive or complicated to be healthy.
Whether it’s Tom or Gwyneth or another celebrity, they make it seem like there’s magic that can transform your life. But healthy eating is much simpler than that.
Q: How else may people be harmed?
A: If you’re taking an unproven therapy or avoiding vaccinations, it can cause physical harm. And some people are being distracted from proven therapies, like opting for alternative cancer treatments instead of getting conventional treatment like chemotherapy.
There’s also financial harm. People are wasting money on things that don’t work.
And many alternative modalities are based on magical thinking. If you get swept up in that, it may erode your critical thinking. That may be the most important long-term harm.
Q: Because these therapies are rooted in pseudoscience?
A: I call it scienceploitation. You see health fads justified using scientific terminology like quantum physics, stem cell therapy, or epigenetics.
The average person can’t sort through these complicated topics. It’s even a lot of work for doctors, scientists, and science communicators to tease out the real science from the fake stuff.
Q: What are some red flags that people should look for?
A: Remember that testimonials and anecdotes are not evidence. Look for actual research on a topic.
Also consider what the body of evidence says on the topic, because that’s what’s important. Don’t make changes to your health based on a single study.
And be skeptical of practices that are billed as new and cutting edge. They’re usually just pseudoscience.
Photo (top): Nathan DeFiesta/unsplash.com.
The information in this post first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.
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