2019 Has Been the Year of the Wellness Scam, and It’s Forcing Us to Turn Our B.S. Meters Way Up

Photo: Stocksy/Santi Nunez
When your to-do list starts to rival a CVS receipt in length, you start looking for ways to streamline, streamline, streamline. Late last year, we anticipated that one-stop wellness spaces—spots like New York City's The Well, Lily Kunin's Clean Market, and WeWork's Rise by We that are designed to make it easier and more convenient for busy-AF consumers to access a breadth of feel-better services in one fell swoop—would proliferate to meet this need. Since then, our prediction has more than manifested; in addition to the above, 2019 saw the opening of sanity-saving spaces like New York City's Tia Clinic (where you can meet with both your gyno and acupuncturist), Los Angeles' The Things We Do beauty and skin-care bar, and Lululemon's new experiential hub in Chicago.

What we didn't foresee, however, is that the same sense of overwhelm that birthed this movement would also make wellness enthusiasts susceptible to "quick fix" therapies and products that aren't supported by science and research and are instead, more often than not, just advertising (read: scams).

"The biggest contributor to [the rise of quick-fix wellness hoaxes] is demand, and demand is on the rise because of millennials," says Jenna Mons, CEO of AccessElite, a health and wellness membership program. "Millennials value wellness and well-being second only to family, so they are the generation that wants a more holistic option, the generation that wants to understand where things are made and how they impact your body, a generation that is more interested in total well-being than any generation that preceded them." This obsession has added a lot to the plates of modern day peeps, who are tasking themselves with optimizing their health on top of everything else crowding their already-full calendars. Naturally, shortcuts have thus gained in appeal. "There is a lot of hope around hacks and silver bullets," says psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD.

"There is a lot of hope around hacks and silver bullets." —Drew Ramsey, MD

The market is expanding to meet this ill-advised demand, and Dr. Ramsey tells me that the "AI Issue"—for example, Instagram ads that know so much about you, they're able to exploit you when you're vulnerable, selling you on products and services that are, at best, a waste of money and at worst, dangerous—is making it easier than ever for those peddling snake oil to find a clientele. "With different social media platforms, you can target, retarget, and figure out who the people are that are seeking the solution that the hoax or quick fix says it can solve," agrees registered dietician Lisa Hayim, MS. This has made everyone with a digital footprint (read: even my 90-year-old grandmother) more vulnerable than ever before.

Unfortunately, smoke-and-mirrors medicine may be harming the very population of people who've accidentally fueled its rise. Millennials, Mons tells me, may actually be less healthy than their parents. "It's an oxymoronic situation to some degree, where they're the most interested [in wellness], but that interest is not necessarily having an impact," she explains. This makes sense to me as an Angeleno immersed in wellness culture, watching those around me shell out hundreds to thousands of dollars on therapies that often are, at best, placebo while simultaneously spending more time than any previous generation sedentarily staring at (stressful) screens.

We can all agree it makes no sense to invest time and energy into wellness products and practices if the return is null (or worse), especially when there are innumerable legit ways to foster well-being. To avoid having our understandable desire for healthy shortcuts exploited by scammers, it's time to fine tune our B.S. meters, big time.

Learn to call B.S. like a pro

The next time you're tempted to give that activated charcoal detox your favorite fitfluencer is shilling a whirl, remember this piece of advice from functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD: "There's no such thing as a magic pill or product that creates perfect health," he says. "I remind my patients that getting healthy is a long-term game, which means that the choices we make every day, starting with the food that we eat, the amount of exercise we get, and way we reduce stress, all add up to create better health." In other words, anything that promises a simple solution should be avoided. Tegan Bukowski, founder of WellSet, a discovery and booking platform for vetted wellness providers, agrees with using this golden rule to evaluate the legitimacy of any product or service. "Wellness is never a quick fix," she says. "Healing is not a linear journey and it takes years, discipline, and an entire wellness team of expert health coaches and doctors to truly get to the bottom of what your body is telling you."

But knowing this doesn't make us immune to wellness FOMO, aka jumping on a trend bandwagon without properly researching how or why it might actually meet our specific needs. "There’s so much peer pressure to try CBD, psilocybin, fasting, keto, or vegan lifestyles, especially if you are struggling," Dr. Ramsey says. And because many such trends haven't been scientifically proven to be successful, people who try them instead of consulting an expert often don't get the help they really need. (Here's looking at you, totally-healthy-but-not-in-a-miraculous-way celery juice.) When the urge to join everyone on the internet in the health fad du jour strikes, reiki master Kelsey Patel advises at least temporarily practicing JOMO. "It's okay to let the dust settle on a trend before you try it," she says.

"Healing is not a linear journey and it takes years, discipline, and an entire wellness team of expert health coaches and doctors to truly get to the bottom of what your body is telling you." —Tegan Bukowski, founder of WellSet

If the dust settles and that shiny new practice or product is still appealing, it's time to do some homework. Even if the packaging is millennial-cute, Mons notes you should rigorously vet items before you add them to your cart. And this means looking beyond reviews, which, sadly, can be easily bought. "Ask yourself, 'Do the [people behind the product] have the credentials to be experts in that space?'" Mons suggests. The answer to this question is especially critical for supplements, which can be downright dangerous if sourced from dubious origins, says Dr. Hyman.

You may also want to run a product or service by a trusted practitioner before getting onboard with it. Ideally, they'll be able to provide insight into whether or not it's a viable treatment and will work for your specific concerns. "We are all vulnerable to these claims, so I recommend finding a functional medicine practitioner who can run the appropriate labs and recommend the best products for your body," Dr. Hyman says. Don't just take this practitioner's word on it, though. "Look into the research," he reiterates.

Expert input means little, however, if the person dolling out the advice isn't trustworthy, and the sad truth is that some practitioners may prioritize their bottom line over your best interests. "The internet makes it easy for people to set themselves up as experts even if they have very little experience," cautions Yinova Center founder Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAc. For this reason, Hayim recommends looking first and foremost for qualifications before trusting any purported expert's advice. "Credentials like being a doctor or a dietitian tell me that the person has had extensive training, they know the limits of what they can do, and they also have a good understanding in ethics," she says. (That last one is underrated, IMO!)

Be especially wary of those who claim their services—and only their services—will be able solve all your problems, says Blakeway. Patel agrees and says to also look out for practitioners who make you feel bad about yourself and then claim they can "fix you." (Sub "significant others" for "practitioners" and you've got a second piece of solid advice, BOGO-style.)

Blakeway is additionally skeptical of those without training who cast themselves as experts because they remedied a personal health problem. "Sometimes these people can be very helpful—I’m thinking of Kris Karr, who has helped countless cancer patients based on her own experience. But sometimes they can be misleading," she says. "It’s important to remember that not all versions of an illness are the same and a good practitioner is trained to do specific diagnosis for each patient and offer advice tailored to the patient. At its worst, this coaching-from-experience model can be fraudulent. I’m thinking of Belle Gibson, who faked having cancer in order to sell an app and a book with a diet that she claimed had cured her own illness."

The takeaway of these cautionary tales shouldn't, however, be total cynicism. "Most people are out there actually doing good, wanting to help and wanting to make a difference," says Patel. "But you're always going to have 10 percent of the population that are schmucks." To weed them and the scams they're selling out quickly and efficiently—because you're so busy, after all—we stand by our original solution: Utilize physical health hubs and digital directories that offer services from pre-vetted practitioners. Then, run your obsession du jour by those trusted sources to make sure it can pass muster. You'll still want to do the research to ensure any modality recommended is right for you and your body, but at least this way your load—and not just your wallet—will be lightened.

We're checking in on our 2019 Wellness Trends: Find out more about the next iteration of Big Bush Energy, and why fitness tech is becoming laser-focused on recovery.

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