When the cult of “wellness” becomes unhealthy

Instagrams of green juices aren’t just annoying, says Sali Hughes, they can also help to promote misinformation that leads to eating disorders and garbled “medical” advice

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By Sali Hughes on

Unless your internet router died circa September 2014, you will no doubt be aware of the “wellness gurus” tearing up the book charts and all social-media platforms, particularly Instagram. These gurus are, by and large, posh white girls from Fulham and its surrounding areas, who advocate “clean eating”, with a view to living a happier, longer and healthier life.

They post an endless stream of selfies to their millions of young followers, in which they model the latest workout wear, while holding a bottle of green juice (click for brands, guys!). There are pictures of yoga poses overlooking the ocean, of superfood salads sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. And of avocado. So, so, so much avocado. Sometimes on spelt toast, sometimes on a bed of quinoa, juiced in a NutriBullet with a little organic parsley, even whipped and frozen for an “indulgent treat” reminiscent of no ice cream in the world, ever.

They advocate the eating of pretendy carbs, where you disguise vegetables as other things, as though attempting to dupe a picky toddler at teatime (anyone who tells you courgette spaghetti is an even faintly convincing substitute for pasta is lying to both themselves and you. Believe me, I’ve road-tested so you don’t have to – it has the texture of an insufficiently wrung-out floor mop).

Wellness gurus hate glutenous carbs, too. They cause huge problems for most of us, you see. It’s a conviction based on apparently no scientific evidence in particular that recently caused some despicable arsehole to publicly tell my dying friend that she merely needed to quit starch and go into ketosis if she wanted to “kill the tumours” (one popular Australian wellness blogger claimed clean eating had cured her own cancer, until it was discovered she’d never been diagnosed with it in the first place).

If wheat is Kryptonite to the clean-eating brigade, then coconut oil (delicious, versatile, also full of cholesterol score-raising saturated fat, according to my registered dietician friend Leo Pemberton) is the messiah. Eat it, drink it, dollop it into porridge, use it to heal your wounds, make your Corian worktops gleam, and “cure” your skin of sun damage. The press releases and marketing bumph I receive are so blinkered, devout and unquestioning of its infinite applications and miraculous capabilities that I ponder on whether coconut is the new Scientology.

There are pictures of yoga poses overlooking the ocean, of superfood salads sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. And of avocado. So, so, so much avocado

Nothing wrong with eating healthily though, right? The trend may be annoying, but we’ll eat more greens in the process, which is never a bad thing. I myself like the occasional juice day, and it’s absolutely true that we are too fat as a nation, and routinely exceed what is a healthy intake of sugar, salt and fat. Why not turn better eating into a business? The problem is that those evangelically showing us the other way are barely ever qualified to do so, and there are more holes in their teachings than in lactose-substitute Swiss cheese.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve yet to meet a single qualified dietician (the term “nutritionist” is meaningless, since it requires no formal training and can therefore be self-appointed) who hasn’t felt the clean-eating movement to be completely alarming and based on way more than the recommended dietary intake of bollocks.

One dietician (working both in the NHS and in private practice) told me this week that he now spends at least one appointment with any new female client having to unpick misinformation and dangerous bad habits they adopted after reading the books, blogs and Instagram posts of wellness gurus. Most of them have cut out entire food groups on the advice of their idols. They eat no dairy, no gluten, no carbs, even no fruit (yes, that’s fruit. It’s bad for you now. Do keep up). In the pursuit of weight loss and good health via wellness blogs, his patients have inadvertently bought into an eating disorder.

There’s also a great deal of posturing, even lying, at play here. It’s no longer cool or feminist to say you’d like to be thin, or to be seen with a Lean Cuisine meal and Weight Watchers starter pack. Now we have to pretend not to care about weight, only about that vague, euphemistic non-word “wellness”. But look at the comments below the line on the average wellness Insta-post and you’ll see the real motive for leagues of young women following the trend. For the wellness gurus to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous. At least there’s an honesty to the uncharmingly named Skinny Bitch Collective (don’t they seem nice?), the online private members' club offering workouts, playlists, wellness workshops and nutrition advice. For just £299, you can join the likes of Millie Mackintosh, Suki Waterhouse and Nicole Scherzinger, and presumably feel like tank life whenever you fancy some Wotsits. Excuse me while I spiralise my credit card.

It’s no longer cool to say you’d like to be thin, or to be seen with a Lean Cuisine meal. Now we have to pretend to care about that vague, euphemistic non-word “wellness”

It’s certainly not only the girls. Only last week, a male wellness guru told me and 20 other journalists that an increase in chronic illness proved our modern diets needed taking back to neolithic times. When I pointed out that neolithic man also carked it when his testicles had barely descended, he seemed quite taken aback, as though this was some controversial theory he'd never considered. I’ve lost count of the number of people in my social circle swearing by the celebrity and guru-backed Paleo diet. One, an otherwise intelligent man, meets me for a drink then, every couple of hours, interrupts conversation to withdraw a pack of disgusting Mattessons ham slices from his breastpocket. If this is healthy living, then you’re more than welcome to it. 

The refreshing shift toward online “amateur experts” – unpretentious, approachable, honest enthusiasts for beauty, fashion, gaming, cooking and so on – is all exciting and positive, and there are plenty of professional young food writers who specialise in healthy, balanced recipes without feeling the need to masquerade as healers: see Anna Jones and Gizzi Erskine, for starters. When I recently looked in juice enthusiast Rosemary Ferguson’s fridge and found beer, vodka and proper butter living happily alongside the kale and wheatgrass, I felt so pathetically grateful that I wanted to crack open a bottle on the spot. But recklessly expanding a mere lifestyle trend into the grave matter of consumers’ physical health, commonly throwing in words like “cancer”, “Crohn’s” and “heart disease” in the process, requires a great deal more care and accuracy. People have a right to expect your expertise to be based on more than thigh gap, lovely hair and a mother rich enough to buy you a Vitamix.


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