The Star-Studded Power Behind Health & Wellness Misinformation

In the era of misinformation where individuals are growing increasingly unsure about what sources are credible and which ones are not, it seems celebrities get more of a pass when it comes to transparency about their own health and wellness brands.

From Gwyneth Paltrow’s highly-criticized, but equally adored health and wellness company, Goop to Jessica Alba’s billion-dollar product empire, The Honest Co., these celebrities are using their status to cash in without necessarily proving that the claims made on the packages of their various products actually hold up or come backed by science.

“Part of the job of a celebrity is to create an aura of beauty and fabulousness, and that aura can be alluring,” says Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Malina Malkani (@healthy.mom.healthy.kids). “I think people are drawn to the notion that they too can achieve a certain body type, weight or physical appearance if they follow a celebrity’s reported health and wellness routine. However, without the army of fitness trainers, personal chefs, make-up and hair artists, that are often involved in a celebrity’s life, this can be a pretty discouraging pursuit.”

Despite the difficult pursuit, consumers are still chomping at the bit to see what new health trend their favorite celebrity will endorse next. We’ve had bird poop facials courtesy of David and Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow’s vaginal jade and quartz eggs that the company claimed helped with regulating women’s menstrual cycles. There’s the class of celebrity parent anti-vaxxers who frequently bring fringe claims about alleged “danger” of vaccines to the mainstream. And, of course, there’s people like Madonna claiming that drinking her own urine after performing, enhances her overall health.

In some cases, there is some accountability. In 2018, as the New York Times reported, Goop settled a case in California, agreeing to pay $145,000 in civil penalties after they made unsubstantiated claims that products (including the aforementioned yoni eggs and something called Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend) could also balance hormones, increase bladder control and prevent depression.

These claims, much like any fad diet or misguided influencer-driven wellness trend, are not rooted in enough science to be backed by any major medical research organizations. Yet, the critics of these celebrities are less concerned with the content of messages and more concerned with how loud these particular messengers’ voices are.

Do we know why we want to copycat our favorite celebrities so badly?

Amanda Kastrinos, a health communications scholar at the University of Florida recently conducted a study with her colleagues that analyzed 200 articles that were published under the “health” tab of the Goop website. She spoke about her study on a recent episode of the podcast, The Dream, and noted that individuals often mimic celebrity’s personal routines as a way to feel connected to them.

“In a way people have complete access to a person’s life and feel like they really know them,” she said on the podcast. “It’s a regular human behavior to do this, not at all a mental health disorder.”

The human behavior she is discussing is the theory of parasocial interaction. It’s the relationship between media users and media figures that resemble social relationships, even though no real interaction is ever occurring. It’s a normal behavior, but one that has only increased dramatically since the conception of social media.

Celebrities can post to social media in real time and show how they are using their products in their everyday life. They can share photos and videos that invite followers into their homes and workspaces. They can even promote personal narratives that make their followers feel connected and ultimately gain their trust. A 2016 study found that those anecdotal stories can often hinder “our ability to reason scientifically.”

So, while it would seem that we should be able to just weed through the noise to find the facts, Malkani says the best way to determine which health trends are valid and which ones are just hogwash, is to consult a registered dietician and speak with your IRL health provider before trying anything that’s super out-there for yourself or your family. They can help you cut through the insta-filtered glamour to find the right answers.

“In a time when influencers, celebrities and people who may not have any nutrition-related education or training can provide ‘dietary advice’ across multiple social media platforms, it’s helpful to know that you can rely on a registered dietician nutritionist to provide evidence-based recommendations that are grounded in science.”

Our society has idolized celebrities and their arguably outlier genes, since the beginning of time. And naturally, we look to them for tips on how to achieve their lifestyle because it appears glossy and fabulous, but the research shows that this can negatively affect our health and our own lifestyle if we are not careful.

“Nutrition is a science, not an opinion,” Malkani says. “Registered dietitian nutritionists are trained to make nutrition recommendations based on the most recent and relevant scientific evidence, rather than relying on opinions and personal anecdotes.”

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