What are bloggers talking about?

Do wellness bloggers actually know what they’re talking about? Maybe. But I often wonder what our own doctors know when they’re dispensing drugs. So let’s at least be fair and judge all of it logically.

Do ‘wellness’ bloggers actually know what they’re talking about?
They’re thin, photogenic, fabulous and followed by millions of admiring, credulous fans. But should we believe anything they say, asks Hadley Freeman
American Vani Hari’s Food Babe blog has more than a million followers. Photo: AFP
AMERICAN VANI HARI’S FOOD BABE BLOG HAS MORE THAN A MILLION FOLLOWERS. PHOTO: AFP

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Nestled among stuffy interior decorating and antique shops, Daylesford farm shop and cafe in Pimlico, London, is, judging by the queue on a weekday mid-afternoon, very much the chic place to meet for a fresh vegetable juice (£6/HK$72) or a superfood salad (£14).

A decade ago, you’d have struggled to find a place such as this in the British capital; now, there seems to be one opening every other day. But, as one review warns, everyone at Daylesford “is likely to be thinner, blonder and richer than you”, and I can testify that this much is true. It is part of a chain owned by Carole Bamford, a woman described on her website as “a visionary in organic farming and healthy food retailing”.

I have come to Daylesford to have a green juice with Calgary Avansino, whose chosen career would have seemed similarly far-fetched a decade ago. I first met Avansino years ago when she worked at Vogue, as editor Alexandra Shulman’s assistant. At the time, she struck me as polite, pretty and a tiny bit scary, like everyone who works for Vogue. Today, she beams with the kind of good health you’d expect of someone who blogs about how to make chia seed pudding.

Writing last year about “healthy fixes for the Christmas feast”, she urged readers to offer guests “an avocado and cacao mousse” instead of mince pies. “Your friends and your body will thank you,” she promised, strongly suggesting she has never met any of my friends. Her book on wellbeing, Keep It Real, will be published next year.

Calgary Avansino. People used to think her “a total weirdo” for eating quinoa.

Despite having had her third child four months ago, at the age of 40, Avansino is very slim. This is not really a surprise: in a recent blog, she detailed her typical weekly diet, which included lunches of avocado on broccoli bread (“My new favourite thing!”) and green smoothies for breakfast. She frequently advises against gluten and describes herself as “not crazy about wheat”. She also writes about how to feed kids healthily. For instance, “Don’t think you have to start your kids eating with bananas – start with a courgette or sweet potato, which is much better than a high glycaemic banana.”

“I’ve never had any training, and I’m not a chef,” Avansino says when I ask about her nutritional qualifications. “I’ve just always eaten like this, and it comes from a very honest and easy place.”

When Avansino moved to London from the United States with her husband 14 years ago, people thought her “a total weirdo” for eating quinoa. Today, she says, everyone else is catching on: “I read this great article recently about how where you get your juice now is more important than what label you wear, because it’s sort of like discreet one-upmanship. I think it’s all positive.”

Why make bananas the first fruit or vegetable you feed your child, asks Calgary Avansino, when you can feed them …

… a courgette, or a sweet potato, which are much better than a high glycaemic banana”, she says.

As anyone who has endured a million Instagram photos of avocado on gluten-free bread (“#avotoast!!!”) knows, Avansino is right: ostentatiously ascetic good health is now a major fashion trend. “Wellness,” as Style.com recently put it, using the zeitgeisty term for the pursuit of health, is “the new luxury status symbol … If five years ago it was a Céline bag, today’s ultimate status symbol might just be a SoulCycle hoodie and a green juice.”

While such breathless prose might make you want to throw a spiraliser through a window (for the uninitiated, that’s a machine that turns vegetables into vague substitutes for spaghetti, thus sparing you those dreaded carbs), it is true that the pursuit of “wellness” hits that crucial point on the Venn diagram between aspiration, self-love and slimness. It’s the ultimate modern sweet spot, especially because you don’t even have to admit that you’re trying to lose weight (so boring, so unfashionable). You are simply pursuing “wellness”.

Within the past decade, being a wellness blogger – someone who writes on nutrition and counsels others on how to change their diet – has overtaken fashion stylist and yoga teacher as the fashionable job option for young women. When Gwyneth Paltrow, whose nutritional qualification is nothing more than a lifetime of eating, launched goop.com in 2008, promoting such untempting sounding propositions as the “21-day elimination diet”, she was roundly mocked. But she is having the last laugh.

Gwyneth Paltrow is having the last laugh.

Jessica Alba launched a wellness website.

Other female celebrities – Jessica Alba and Blake Lively, for instance – have since launched their own wellness websites, and it was recently announced that Paltrow is creating a range of organic gluten-free ready meals featuring options such as kale ravioli. Even Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, is reportedly training to be a nutritionist – surely the ultimate sign that the trend has hit the mainstream.

Instead of qualifications in boring things such as nutrition and science, the wellness guru has a blog and an Instagram account. From these, she advises thousands, even millions, of followers in her friendly, informal tone to avoid the likes of tropical fruits (too high in sugar) and stock up instead on cold-pressed green juices. She makes dark references to the many ways in which today’s food industry is making us all sick. She also includes many, many photos of herself to confirm the efficacy of her recommendations.

The wellness blogger is, crucially, photogenic and young, which is why “wellness” looks so much more desirable than it did a decade ago, when it was poo-fixated Gillian McKeith telling us to eat more fibre. “Eat like me, look like me”, is the message. Typical photo poses include sitting on a beach lounger in a bikini while drinking from a coconut or reclining in a rustic kitchen in skinny jeans, a cute porcelain bowl of vegetables in one hand.

There are differences, however: some bloggers endorse juice fasts whereas others scorn juice and compare its sugar content to that of Coca-Cola; some promote fasting, others advise against. Such subjective disagreements are perhaps inevitable among a profession in which no training is required.

If five years ago it was a Céline bag, today’s ultimate status symbol might just be a SoulCycle hoodie and a green juice
CALGARY AVANSINO

It’s easy to mock this phenomenon, but it is big business. Wellness gurus accrue lucrative endorsements from health food brands, exercise equipment makers and spas, which they promote on their blogs. Publishers cannot give them book deals fast enough, and bestseller lists in Britain, Australia and the US are filled with volumes on wellness, which mix recipes with vague nutritional advice and, of course, many, many photos.

It’s perhaps not surprising that these books have found such a large audience: most people do eat too much crap and would like to be healthier or, at least, thinner. If it takes a bunch of 25-year-olds with access to social media to make eating fruit (non-tropical) seem cool, this can only be a positive thing, surely? The emphasis on the alleged nefariousness of wheat and gluten feels more trendy than true, but if some people unnecessarily cut out bread and eat more vegetables, well, that doesn’t sound like the worst trade-off in the world.

But food bloggers and nutritionists, unlike dietitians, are not regulated, and a few problems have emerged in this wellness gold rush. Until earlier this year, Belle Gibson was a successful blogger in Australia. Her claims that she had cured herself of various cancers through eating fruit and vegetables brought her enormous attention. She is estimated to have made more than US$1 million from her app, The Whole Pantry, and the book of the same name, which was published by Penguin. Apple was planning to include her app on the Apple Watch. She boasted that she had encouraged “countless others” who suffered from cancer to reject conventional medical treatment and opt instead to treat themselves naturally.

Belle Gibson admitted her claims to have cured herself of cancer were untrue. Keep It Real will be published next year.

In April, it was revealed that Gibson’s story was bogus: she never had cancer. She gave a tearful interview to Women’s Weekly magazine in which the journalist drily reported, “She says she is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee, but doesn’t really understand how cancer works.” Penguin said it had published the book “in good faith” and had never sought to verify Gibson’s claims.

Over in the US, Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe, is one of the most popular bloggers on nutrition and has successfully lobbied food brands such as Kraft to remove various chemicals from their products (scientists have argued that such campaigns were unnecessary). A former financial consultant, with no nutritional or science training, Hari’s blog now reaches well over a million followers and features posts with the kind of attention-grabbing headlines bloggers are so good at, such as “3 Things Doctors Say You Should Do … But Shouldn’t!” and “Are You Eating This Ingredient Banned All Over the World?”

Hari has been widely condemned by scientists and dietitians, who say she “exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers”. She has also been described as “the Jenny McCarthy of food” (the actor McCarthy, similarly unversed in science, encouraged Americans not to vaccinate their children, warning it would cause autism). Hari has responded by quoting Gandhi – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” – and suggesting her critics are in the pay of big pharma and food corporations, thus making a virtue of her outsider status and lack of nutritional training.

In the long term, I’d like to see Madeleine as a female Jamie Oliver
ALICE RUSSELL, MANAGER OF MADELEINE SHAW

I grew up in New York and have spent time in Los Angeles. Along with Sydney, these are probably the epicentres for kooky, healthy eating trends, and I have watched many come and go. Although trendy British cafés serve gluten-free muffins and soya lattes these days, I had assumed that most Brits were too sardonic to go too far down this path.

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Source: Do ‘wellness’ bloggers actually know what they’re talking about? | South China Morning Post