Unless you’ve been on digital hiatus lately, you would have seen the torrent of articles about health stars in the news. From allegations against The Whole Pantry app founder and alternative medicine advocate Belle Gibson to Paleo pin-up Pete Evans, there’s been no escaping these explosive stories.
Given the increasing frequency of reports of fraud and false claims by social media stars in the health industry, we ask: is it time for a crackdown? Should we reconsider who we ‘follow’?
There’s never been an easier time for people to share their views to a mass audience. Shura Ford, founder of natural health clinic Ford Wellness Group, says social media is one of the biggest platforms for creating new health stars, which poses a potential problem. “[Social media] is global and its popularity is dependant on what resonates with the public, not with what is most credible,” she tells SHESAID.
Ford’s Melbourne-based clinic employs both traditional and non-traditional medical experts, ranging from GPs and psychologists to herbalists and kinesiologists. She says all professionals must be qualified and registered with their respective associations, or they can’t practice. In the digital realm however, it’s a different matter.
Belle Gibson, founder of The Whole Pantry app, cultivated an Instagram following of over 200,000 people around the world thanks to her message of ‘clean’ eating and natural therapies, including Ayervedic treatments and oxygen therapy. Gibson, whose cancer claims are currently under investigation, has sparked outrage about how a 26-year-old was able to give advise to so many people, with so few health qualifications.
“While I’m all for people becoming self empowered to look after themselves, taking advice from someone who isn’t adequately trained nor qualified can be very damaging for that person’s health- not to mention costly,” says Rebecca Warren, lecturer of nutritional medicine at Endeavour College of Natural Health.
Ford agrees, adding, “the unfortunate situation is that there is no recourse of action for unqualified advice and it’s difficult for the public to know what is accurate or correct.”
So, what’s to stop anyone launching a site, gathering a social following and giving advise to an audience of thousands? Nothing.
What’s the danger?
When celebrity chef Pete Evans prepared to launch his new cookbook Bubba Yum Yum- The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies and Toddlers, this year, he had no idea about the backlash it would spark.
“In my view, there’s a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead,” the president of the Public Health Association of Australia, Professor Heather Yeatman, told the Australian Women’s Weekly.
Evans, a well-known TV host, chef and cookbook author, came under fire for a Paleo recipe in his new book, which suggested serving bone broth to a young child in place of formula. Despite Pan Macmillan refusing to publish the book, Evans has announced plans to self-publish it, relying on his strong social and digital following to support the venture.
Similarly, Gibson was able to use her reach as a social media sensation to spread information about her experience with using natural therapies for healing. “If you Google ‘natural cancer cure,’ more than 50 million searches claim to have your answer in the form of a herb, fruit, vegetable or tonic!” says accredited practicing dietitian Larina Robinson. “It’s just not that simple.”
“It’s sad because both women [Belle Gibson and Jess Ainscough] have inspired others to take control of their health and wellness with a sense of optimism,” says Ford, who admits she’s disappointed by the negativity shown toward natural medicine as a result of recent press.
“But I do agree with the concern that there may be others who were impressionable and vulnerable to persuasion,” she says. “They may have decided to forgo conventional treatment without being fully informed because they believed so strongly in the ideology of their health heroes.”
Rebecca Warren says she often sees health bloggers advocating ways of eating that aren’t as simple as ‘one size fits all.’ “Many of these bloggers just tell people to stay off gluten and dairy and everything will be fine. This might be true for some people, but if you don’t have a closer look, something really big may be missed.”
Who is the Watchdog?
Countless comments bombarded The Whole Pantry’s Facebook page prior to it being taken down, demanding refunds and asking how a potential lie could spiral out of control. “How can people get away with this? Doesn’t someone monitor these kind of claims?” one user posted.
Indeed, it’s a question that many angry followers of The Whole Pantry and Belle Gibson have been asking. Some followers even turned to magazines such as ELLE and Cosmopolitan, who both supported Gibson with inspirational features and even awards.
“When people are distributing irresponsible or harmful advice they should be held accountable,” says Ford. “Whilst the public need to take responsibility for their own health choices, impressionable and vulnerable followers need to be protected.”
Getting back to basics
Both Ford and Robinson agree that recent controversy shouldn’t deter people from alternative medicine and therapies, but should teach us to be more vigilant about where, and from whom, we source information from. “Eating the Paleo diet, despite its poor scientific background for it’s existence, can actually provide a nutrient rich platform for wholefood eating,” says Robinson, who believes stories such as Evans’ push extreme cases, and shouldn’t cast a shadow on wholefood eating.
Ford says the key is to seek professional advice, not the voice from the device in your hand. “Professional practitioners are accountable for what they say and recommend, they have to abide by ethical standards,” she explains. “The average blogger doesn’t have that level of accountability.”
Warren believes we need to be more vigilant about checking the qualifications of health bloggers we follow. “A bachelor degree is a minimum. And not just any degree – it needs to be in the area that they are talking about,” she says, explaining that specific subject degree means that person has undertaken a “rigorous level of education,” which usually takes three to four years.
The key lesson they agree on? As our digital presence and consumption changes, so too does our need to be more alert and aware. We need to be able to discern between voices we can trust, and those we can’t. Those health ‘gurus’ who fill your feed with nutrition advice and diet recipes? It might be time to hit ‘unfollow.’
Images via ELLE magazine, Nine News, The Australian.