Here’s some throwback wellness trivia for you: In 2014, essential oil brands Young Living and doTerra made headlines right as their popularity was soaring—for getting smacked down by the FDA. Independent sales reps from both multi-level marketing companies were claiming, via social media posts, that the products could be used to prevent or treat all manner of serious illnesses, from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to the Ebola virus—which, as any medical professional worth their salt will attest, is just plain untrue. You might think this kind of sketchy messaging (and the ensuing government warning) would cause a serious dip in consumer trust, but that didn’t seem to be the case. In fact, for the first time, both brands reported over $1 billion in sales the following year.
In my mind, essential oil gate was an eerie harbinger of our current wellness-world landscape, a time in which anyone with a social-media account can brand themselves as a wellness guru, regardless of their qualifications, and say whatever they want without being fact-checked. To wit: A recent study by University of Glasgow researchers found that eight out of nine leading UK-based bloggers hawking weight-loss advice presented false or misleading health intel in their posts.
The sample size was obviously very small, but I can personally attest that my own iPhone is a minefield of questionable claims these days. A few weeks ago I heard a well-known wellness podcaster claim that the CBD she was advertising could “cure” depression, an opinion that’s not backed up by a substantial body of research. I can’t open Instagram without seeing an influencer shilling some kind of seemingly “healthy” weight-loss tea that, in actuality, is pretty unhealthy. And now that creating online workshops is a cinch, the internet is rife with shady options, like influencer courses that don’t deliver on their promises (or don’t even happen at all) and 60-minute, free shaman “certifications.”
So why is the wellness world such a ripe breeding ground for misinformation and scams?
According to neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD, who studies the mind-brain connection, wellness culture is a playground of sorts for fraudsters. “Wellness scams play to our vulnerabilities and insecurities,” she says. And upon thinking about it, that totally makes sense: When someone is in search of a health- or wellness-related solution, it often happens at a particularly sensitive time in their life, when they’re sick or in pain or otherwise unsatisfied in some way. “As humans, we always seek to reduce uncertainty and internal discomfort as a means of ‘survival.’ We believe these scams will solve an internal problem, then when they don’t and the dopamine rush is gone, we look to find [something else] to solve the new problem that has arisen. Essentially, we get stuck in this toxic loop.”
“Wellness scams play to our vulnerabilities and insecurities. We believe these scams will solve an internal problem.” —neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD
As fitness historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, PhD, points out, this isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon. “There have been scammers that promise to improve health and happiness for centuries, long before ‘wellness’ was a term,” she says. “Late 19th century ‘snake oils’—which knocked off legitimate Chinese cures and falsely promised to cure all kinds of health issues—gave us the phrase that, today, we apply to scams like those around supplements, ‘miraculous’ fat-burning solutions, and even fitness programs that make claims about all-but-instant transformation.”
Although scams aren’t necessarily a product of the digital era, the emphasis that techy innovations place on life hacks and instant gratification have only intensified our obsession with quick wellness fixes, says Dr. Leaf. “We, as a society, have trained ourselves to think that faster is better,” she explains. “We have become addicted to the end goal rather than the hard, sometimes boring and unglamorous process of change and improvement.” What’s more, information spreads fast online, adds Dr. Petrzela. This means that dubious health fixes can catch on quickly among a larger number of people than they may have in the past.
We’re also living in a climate in which some are becoming disillusioned with the Western medicine practices they grew up turning to and are looking for answers and validation outside of their MDs’ offices, says Dr. Petrzela. Of course there are plenty of reputable practitioners in the alternative medicine space, but there are also some who don’t have the proper education or credentials—and being able to identify these situations and people can be tough. “These days, there’s a strong and understandable anti-establishment sensibility around health, especially for women and people of color who have been marginalized by mainstream medicine,” Dr. Petrzela says. “This opens the doors to some good products and practices, but also to scams that have little basis in science and still find a willing public.” Pair all of this with influencer culture—which has seen many so-called “wellness experts” rise to superstar status without any formal health training—and Dr. Leaf says you’ve got a perfect environment for misinformation to thrive.
Who to trust when it comes to wellness advice, and how to avoid scams
Although it’s certainly a bummer to lose cash to false advertising, it’s not just our bank-account balances that are at stake here. In the worst cases, taking bad wellness advice could actually be detrimental to a person’s health. “I think today we often think of some of these scams as ineffectual and a waste of money, but it’s important to remember they can be harmful,” says Dr. Petrzela. “I’m reminded of the Cambridge Diet, a 450-calorie-a-day diet plan [popularized in the 1980s, but dating back to the ’60s] that had an elaborate distribution structure, and many ‘success stories’ of weight loss, but which was medically unsound and on which some even had heart failure.”
“We often think of some of these scams as ineffectual and a waste of money, but it’s important to remember they can be harmful.” —fitness historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, PhD
Fortunately, there are ways to keep from falling victim to deceptive wellness claims. First, your own team of medical pros should be your initial stop for health and wellness advice, and sounding boards to call upon before adopting a new practice, as they’ll be able to best advise you based on your unique situation. When you do seek out health information online, prioritize the opinions of certified, highly trained professionals—this goes for both mainstream and alternative medicine. Take skin care: As the panelists at a recent beauty-focused Well+Good TALK pointed out, there are plenty of dermatologists who are active on social media today, and their opinions are undoubtedly more valid than untrained influencers being paid to promote certain products. Another example? In the University of Glasgow study mentioned above, the only weight-loss blogger whose posts checked out for accuracy was a licensed nutritionist.
When it comes to buying products or event tickets from an influencer, fitness instructor Kait Hurley—who personally sells workout programs online—says to look for reviews, customer testimonials, and refund policies before you click the “buy” button.
Finally, says Dr. Petrzela, it’s important to be your own scientific researcher when you’re tempted to jump on a new wellness trend. “Read carefully and critically, ask lots of questions, and demand evidence for every single claim,” she says. Especially when the results you’re chasing seem too good to be true.
Not all hacks are bad news: Check out this trick for making your white sneakers look like new again, or score this $1 buy to give yourself an at-home massage (no S.O. required.)
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