This week a sad and shocking news story was reported. Wellness blogger Belle Gibson confirmed that she lied about having terminal cancer, after having built a huge following online for treating her “disease” with a gluten and sugar-free diet. Her book ‘The Whole Pantry‘ has been taken off the shelves, her bestselling app removed from the Apple Store. She has been publicly disgraced and shamed as a danger to genuine sufferers. I followed Belle’s Instagram account, and after hearing the news checked it to find that all of her photos had been deleted, the 186,000 followers lying dormant on an empty graveyard-like profile.
What Belle did was awful, and something that only she herself and those closest to her can truly understand. But what made this story even worse was the inflammatory way the media reacted to it, with certain publications tarnishing other bloggers and the ‘wellness’ trend with the same brush.
This Guardian article, for example, uses Belle’s story to critique bloggers including activist Vani Hari, also known as Food Babe, for using their attractive profiles to promote harmful advice, due to not knowing what they’re talking about. She says:
Wellness bloggers are increasingly numerous, astonishingly popular and embarrassingly feted by the media which never can resist attractive young women talking about food and being photographed nibbling on a strawberry. They write blogs about healthy living, which invariably means randomly cutting out various food groups and gluten (although how many of them actually know what gluten is remains to be ascertained), even though most of them have no nutritional training beyond feeding themselves… They usually have a story about how they fell ill and cured themselves through their diet. They often claim that the modern food industry is killing us all and they always suggest that if you follow their instructions to the letter you, too, will be as gorgeous as they are, and maybe even able to nibble a strawberry as sexily to boot.
It’s easy to mock wellness bloggers … but their uneducated bletherings about food and health are, at best, irresponsible and, at heart, immoral.
Since I started blogging I’ve tried very hard to be careful about sharing any health advice not evidentially supported. I have no qualifications to call myself an expert on anything related to nutrition, just as many other bloggers don’t. But I’ve found that the health bloggers a lot of us look up to in fact don’t insist you follow their advice “to the letter”. Yes, in some cases, they’re saying “These lifestyle changes helped to heal my [insert illness here], so might help you feel better too.” There’s no claims that these changes will cure their readers, though they undoubtedly attract fellow sufferers of the same affliction. The reason for this is that people living with long term and chronic conditions are often looking for anything to help them feel better. They might be on drugs, painkillers and medication, but are still feeling like crap. And what if they don’t want to constantly rely on drugs for the rest of their lives? Where is the first place they’d turn to for advice on drug-free options? The internet, of course.
I was speaking to a fellow blogger recently about her previous job as a medical research manager in the NHS. She sat on the board of an ethics committee that decided which new medical trials and research proposals to approve. What I was shocked to hear was that the trials involving nutrition and lifestyle changes were 9 times out of 10 rejected, even when presented with solid evidence to back up the claims. Compare this to trials for new drugs to manage (not cure) symptoms over the long term, which almost always went through, and – surprise, surprise – were funded by the drug and pharmaceutical industries. It turns out they have a much bigger role in our health service than most of us realise.
After all, if people were able to eliminate symptoms for their health conditions, or in some cases heal them completely, who would buy the drugs? And where would that money go?
The subject of “natural” healing is delicate, and as I’m lucky enough never to have suffered from a serious health condition I absolutely don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, or even want to engage in this type of debate normally. Most people do not expect to heal themselves through diet alone, but if you look online there are countless true stories of how cutting out processed foods, sugar, and sometimes meat, gluten and dairy have had positive effects on relieving health complaints. For some people, the changes they experience are smaller things, like having more energy or getting to a healthier weight. For others, making changes to their diet can eliminate debilitating symptoms that have been robbing them of the ability to live an active and happy life.
That’s not to say that by drinking green juice every day you will automatically feel fantastic. One of the bloggers I admire most for their honesty on this topic is Nutritiously Natasha, who writes with frank openness about her journey using diet to help heal her chronic illnesses, which for the record, isn’t always a bed of roses.
But though I’ve never been seriously ill, over the past few years I have got much more interested in improving my overall health. Starting this blog was a part of that process but I wouldn’t say the healthy recipes I post on here are “irresponsible” to my readers, because at the end of the day they taste good and that’s the reason above all others that I hope attracts people to them! Would we really call sharing a sugar-free chocolate recipe “immoral” because the creator isn’t qualified to professionally ascertain that sugar is bad for you?!
I personally would advocate eliminating most junk/processed foods and refined sugar, but I’m still a big foodie and will never resist a bit of what I fancy, even if it isn’t “clean” or gluten-free. Despite these occasional indulgences, since adopting a healthier lifestyle, I’ve felt a noticeable difference both internally and externally. I’m happier, have tons more energy and actually find myself wanting to exercise most days. So I’d go as far as to claim that yes, these small diet changes have improved my general health.
For anybody who, like me, wants to learn more about healthy eating and wellness techniques, the internet is the world’s biggest rabbit hole for information, which will undoubtedly throw up some craziness now and again. I completely agree that if you want specific health advice, you should always consult a doctor or registered dietician first before jumping on the latest juice cleanse you see your favourite blogger plugging. And I understand how confusing it must be to see different personalities endorsing various diets and lifestyle plans. Should I quit sugar? Should I go paleo? Or vegan? Do I have to do yoga now?!?
What works for you may or may not work for someone else – but to say that wellness bloggers are harmful or dangerous for sharing what gave them good health just doesn’t make sense to me. I would go as far to say that they are doing the world a great service.
At the end of the day, our bodies are all completely unique and will react in varying degrees to different foods and medications. I feel that the most important thing is to be intuitive and take an active role in your own health. Because nobody is going to be as invested in it as you are.