The rise of Wellness Celebrities and the downfall of the dinner party.

28 April 2015
Amy Coët

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family gatherings at my parents’ house. Regardless of the occasion, the most important thing was always the food. The abundant, delicious, mouth-watering food, served up with love and lashings of butter.  Preparation would start days in advance, and the menu planning even earlier. The only concern they ever had whilst planning the menu was whether there would be enough food, and catering for the very occasional vegetarian. Over dinner recipes would be shared, or secret ingredients teasingly hinted at, and conversations would be about the best bakery, the great new local butcher and reminiscences of previously enjoyed meals. 

These days, it’s not nearly so simple.

Planning a dinner menu for my friends and family is a minefield of dietary intolerances, restrictions and near religious fervor about the healthfulness or not of the ingredient list. Dinner conversations revolve around the latest in nutritional trends as devotees try to convert the rest of the table to their life changing new regime. It’s tempting to serve up a bowl of organically grown, pesticide free salad leaves and leave them to it whilst hiding in the kitchen gnawing on a gluten filled, deliciously inorganic baguette, preferably smothered in cheese. 

Restrictive diets seem to becoming the norm. People are voluntarily eschewing perfectly delicious, apparently nutritious food in droves. In a quest for health, weight-loss, clear skin, miracle cures and super-powers, it seems that more and more people are following self-imposed dietary regimes forbidding foods that many of us lesser folk consume with gleeful abandon each day. 

But where are people getting their information from?

Are GP’s everywhere merrily prescribing diets forbidding all the most delicious food groups? Certainly, some people  are making these food choices based on advice from their GP’s or from registered Dietitians who have years of training, and an industry mandated registration. However,  more and more we are seeing the rise of “wellness gurus”. Celebrities with little to no formal education in nutrition or dietetics (FYI Jenny McCarthy, “The University of Google” is not an officially recognised qualification) who promote their lifestyle as the one true path to health, happiness and oneness with the universe. 

Often these wellness gurus tell a moving story behind their conversion to their new way of life. Stories of reclaimed healtha child cured from Autism, even a cure for cancer. These diets inevitably recommend totally eschewing some ingredients that are normally considered staples in an Australian household – the more extreme the better. Sugar is often listed right up there with Methamphetamine on the list of evil substances you could possibly consume. Bread gets a similar treatment. Other innocent victims of food hate campaigns include such seemingly innocuous foods such as milk, and even traditionally healthy things such as wholegrains!

Not to mention, that of the remaining foods you are allowed to eat must be organically, bio-dynamically grown, from local producers. God forbid you buy a super saver pack of sausages from the local supermarket for your next BBQ – are you trying to poison your guests and sentence them to a lifetime of ‘toxic’ overload? It’s so exhausting thinking about that I have to have a donut. A real one, not one of these sugar-free, grain-free cardboard monstrosities.

 So, just who are these wellness gurus? What do they promote? And what do they stand to gain?
Pete Evans
Pete Evans

Pete Evans is one of the better known celebrities, appearing nightly on our TV’s devouring chocolate ganache on My Kitchen Rules and then promoting the benefits of the grain free, sugar free, caveman inspired Paleo Lifestyle on his Facebook page. With close to a million followers Pete has an enormous audience, and with a range of cookbooks, cooking accessories and a $99, 10 week program, the potential profits are enormous. His credentials stack up better than others – he can boast a well-established career as a restaurateur and chef and a certification as a Health Coach with qualifications from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

 Sarah Wilson is another wellness celebrity, with a passionate belief in the evils of sugar, a range of recipe books and an 8 week program (which at $150 appears to be not quite as good value as Paleo Pete’s). As a self-described former newspaper, magazine and TV journalist, her credentials are somewhat suspect. And of course,  there is Belle Gibson, the recently disgraced “Wellness Warrior” who claimed to have cured her terminal brain cancer with healthy eating and “natural healing”. After astronomical sales of her whole pantry app and recipe books she has been exposed as a fake who not only didn’t heal herself from cancer with coffee enemas and kale smoothies, but never even had cancer in the first place. The list of celebrity wellness gurus could go on and one, but we will stop there.

 Aside from the fact that people are wasting their money on glossy cookbooks and annoying their friends at dinner parties is it really worth getting worked up about? 

Well .. yes. It should come as no surprise to anyone that following health advice from unverified sources has potential negative health implications. Recently, the release of one of Pete Evans recipe books has been delayed due to fears over the recipes for baby formula. Professor Heather Yeatman, president of the PHAA even went so far as to say

In my view, there’s a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead,”

Cancer suffers have been given false hope, and perhaps even made misguided decisions about treatment   based on Belle Gibson’s irresponsible advice. 

 So, is the safe option to just follow the food pyramid we all remember from our school days? Actually, that may not turn out to be such a good move either. Harvard Nutritionist Dr Walter Willett recently claimed that not only is the food pyramid wrong, but that 

“the USDA food pyramid serves the interests of its main client, the U.S. agricultural industry”.

The Heart Foundation Tick
National Heart Foundation

There are articles published daily outlining the causes of the current obesity crisis – many of them blaming low fat, highly processed “diet foods” for the epidemic. The Heart Foundation Tick – a trusted signal of a healthy choice to many Australian consumers has come under fire for misguiding consumers. Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton has stated that it “gives a ”stamp of credibility” to unhealthy foods such as frozen pies and pizzas and distracts from the key message to avoid processed foods”.

The simple act of fueling our bodies has become a minefield of agonising, confusing choices.  

There has never been so much information available and with so many competing viewpoints it has gotten to the point where you need a degree in nutrition just to decide what to have for breakfast. So what’s a health conscious food lover to do? Until there is some consistent, trustworthy form of regulation about health claims made online, all I can recommend is that you bring a dose of healthy skepticism to the table. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. And if your friends don’t eat what you cook them, stop inviting them to dinner parties. 

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