A Grain of Salt – A Marketer’s Skepticism of the “Nutrition” blog

If there’s one thing that my knowledge of Marketing has given me, which I can truly appreciate for having some real-world use, it’s a sense of objectivity. It’s something I pride myself on quite a lot. It’s continued through my developed interest in the field of science, particularly that of physics/astrophysics (I should add the disclaimer that I have a great interest in the concepts and theorem, but I simply have no idea regarding the practical applications of it! That’s for the smart people who got into it early). 

With Marketing, it gives me pause to be able to see through the bullshit, or appreciate the creative way of framing said bullshit, and allows me an understanding of what’s truly going on. The same can be said for my interest in science. They both give me a need to see how certain things stack up empirically, do they actually work? Or, are they truly achieving something for the motivations that they’re claimed to be driven by? Which brings me to the latest “love to hate it” item. The “Nutritionist” blog. We’ve all seen them with their images of good food, attractive, active and healthy looking young people, mainly young women, through flattering instagram filters. But always remember to question their perceptions, their qualifications and their motivations!

The Internet: the World’s biggest Soapbox

Firstly, the irony of me being on a blog discussing the fact that other, certain blogs are, in a sense, stupid, does not escape me. However, I only claim certain things in fields I’m an expert in, which is Marketing, travel (because everyone’s an expert in their own adventures) and my personal music taste. I’m not going to make claims about things I don’t have an understanding in. Which brings me to my point. That, online, anyone and everyone can claim to have expert knowledge on a certain thing, but this is usually only in relation to their personal experience. Not in relation to a scientific process or understanding of specific processes, concepts etc, etc, etc. There’s a glut of people with an opinion, but a drought of those with anything to back their claims. That’s the catch 22 of the internet. People can say things which sound true, but you should definitely question their merit, even if it’s in my blog!

And so, the “nutritionist” blog. I use quotation marks because the term nutritionist can be applied to anyone who realises that there are chemicals, amino-acids, carbohydrates, etc in food. And I can be very sarcastic. In explaining these, it’s a lot like me trying to explain a complex theory in Physics. While I understand the concepts, it’s their applications where I don’t have any true understanding, so for that reason, I avoid trying to promote a certain understanding of Quantum Mechanics! But that doesn’t stop some people, and they will purvey a number of misunderstood, even distorted, “facts” as exactly that, to their large and agreeable audiences. Not necessarily out of greed or other nefarious motivation, but out of a lack of objectivity and a skewed perception of their understanding of particular, basic concepts, in this case, regarding nutrition. Even so, it’s sometimes still necessary to question their motivations.

Pete Evans: Paleo Diet Champion. His new book recommends fatal doses of Vitamin A for infants
Pete Evans: Paleo Diet Champion. His new book recommends potentially fatal doses of Vitamin A for infants

Know your Bloggers

Last weekend, I watched the Princess Bride, a pretty timeless classic. It has one of my favourite quotes of all time:

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

Nutrition is very big business in Australia at the moment. The Paleo diet is trumpeted by celebrity chef and host of a terrible reality show (yet not a qualified dietitian) Pete Evans. Fitness model and exceptionally-good-looking-in-a-bikini Ashy Bines (again, not a qualified dietitian) has a successful blog on how to eat like her to look like her. And Media personality Sarah Wilson (also, not a qualified dietitian), student of the New York Institute of “Integrative” Nutrition, which has no scientific certification and whose partnerships with accredited universities were terminated due to the lack of clarity around their understanding of nutrition, also has a book on having a zero sugar diet.

Ashy Bines: More than a pretty face... but still not qualified to give nutritional recommendations.
Ashy Bines: More than a pretty face… but still not qualified to give nutritional advice.

I for one applaud people who advocate a healthy lifestyle with good, healthy food and outdoor activity, but, it’s the fact that their perceptions are based on flawed understandings of the underlying concept of nutrition which bugs me. Pete Evan’s for example, recently released a book, quickly removed from shelves as his recipes for babies contained fatal overdoses of Vitamin A and Sarah Wilson has been criticised by leading nutrition scientists of encouraging restrictive, disordered eating. But the most telling of these was Ashy Bines’ controversy. She was exposed as having plagiarised several recipes (let’s face it, of course every recipe is plagiarised these days) but I took more notice of her explanation that it was due to someone from her “outsourced content creation team” that made the recipes. So not only is she lacking a full understanding of nutrition, she’s not even creating the content herself (however much she may guide the process of her content/copy writing agencies). This brings motivations of hers, and aforementioned “experts” into question and, therefore, the efficacy of all of their claims.

Belle Gibson: Alleged to have faked cancer to promote her healthy eating app.
Belle Gibson: Alleged to have faked cancer to promote her healthy eating app.

A more extreme example of why you should always question the motivations of these people is Belle Gibson. Purported to have faked a cancer diagnosis to claim that her diet allowed her to fight it off and had received thousands of dollars to turn over to charity, with no record of her having done so! She also had a hugely popular app on the App store, which has since been removed due to her questionable back story. If it’s sounds too good to be true… Well…

Don’t let simple things, like facts, stop you from buying my book!

Many of these blogs/books have a central theme. And each of them explicitly state these things: Look good, feel good, build your self-esteem, be yourself but better, eat my way and you’ll be like me. They’re telling you that the way you’ve been eating is all wrong and if you want to be attractive and healthy as they are, then you need to follow their regimes, conveniently available in their new book! It’s the same as any fad diet. It promotes a particular dietary structure, with restricted eating while ignoring the basics around having a full intake of necessary nutrients and misunderstanding the contents of certain foods and their impact on nutrition.

This is part of the natural cycle of fads. They appear on a popular morning show, or current affairs program, make a young/fit/attractive entrepreneur a lot of money and are later discredited on those same platforms for not really being particularly beneficial or, in some cases, being downright dangerous for your health! But we see it time and time again and yet many are still unable to see the fads as they are and still fork out large amounts of money for the “tools” to improved health. This comes down directly to influencing the most base level, hedonic motivations of consumers in order to achieve the most common desired outcome. To make money. The first thing any marketer learns to do!

When it comes to food, you know what to do… You just don’t know it yet!

There are few things that can evoke such strong reactions, opinions or emotions, as food. It brings people together as a social adhesive, it creates memorable experiences for having elicited positive reactions (or the opposite!) and can give insights into the best aspects of a national culture. In our Western, sedentary, time-poor, high-convenience lifestyle, a healthy diet is unachievable for some and it’s easy to become attached to the promise of being able to improve your diet and health with low effort. It’s especially easy when presented by a good looking, white teethed, (predominately) young person who reflects the sometimes distorted modern idealism of healthy body image.

The main lesson in this is that you already have the tools to a healthier lifestyle. There are always going to be obstacles to achieving the perfect balance of health-time-money-enjoyment, but it is always possible. As a marketer, I have a tip for those who might not initially realise they’re subscribed to a fad. Just remember that if someone is claiming that their personal experience in food is the reason for their good health always ask these questions:

  1. Do their claims stand up to scrutiny?
  2. Where do they get their ideas and does that stand to scrutiny?
  3. Do I need to buy or subscribe to their ideas?
  4. If they’re promoting a particular product, are they being paid to do so?
  5. Are they blogging themselves? or is their content outsourced to an agency or copywriters?

Finally, there is only one set of rules you need to follow in your diet:

Don’t eat too much. If you start to put on weight, eat less. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, including a third of starchy foods and wholegrains., smoothies are okay but ruin beneficial fibres and increase sugars.  Don’t eat too much processed meat. Drink alcohol in moderation if you choose to. Avoid sugar and salt as best you can, don’t have too many fats but avoid trans-fats entirely. And remember, always use more energy than you’re consuming by exercising! 20-30 minutes of sweat inducing exercise is all you need.

Eat well, live well, enjoy yourself, don’t overdo it. And better spending your money on a holiday rather than that diet book!

Sources:

  1. Science for Life – Brian Clegg
  2. http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2015/04/11/food-babe-critic-science-babe-on-gluten-free-diet-detox-fad/
  3. http://www.mamamia.com.au/lifestyle/ashy-bines-plagiarism-claims/
  4. http://daa.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/t-go-the-Paleo-Way1.pdf
  5. http://daa.asn.au/for-the-media/hot-topics-in-nutrition/position-statement-response-to-criticism-by-advocates-of-the-paleo-diet/
  6. http://themindfulfoodie.com/2012/10/30/holistic-health-coaching-course-institute-for-integrative-nutrition-iin/
  7. http://www.credentialwatch.org/reports/iin.shtml
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