Probably all she ate today (Photo: Getty Images)

Not-so-squeaky clean: Why wellness culture is a scam

It’s time we viewed the restrictive philosophy peddled by ‘influencers’ and corporates as what it is: dangerous, manipulative crap. 

My firmly held belief that wellness culture is a fucking scam is met by scepticism and bemused looks at every turn. Everyone I know and their mother is trapped in a chase for the panacea of health and wellness, a concept-cum-miracle-cure that’s become increasingly convoluted and entrapped in corporate interest and class structure.

What I’ll affectionately refer to as wellness culture is the nebulous system created by the weight-loss industry, food marketers, pseudo-science nutritionists and Instagram personalities. It’s enabled by — and flourishes under — the conditions of capitalism, individualism, corporate misogyny and social media. It’s the culture that leads you to believe — explicitly or not — that by following a never-ending list of routines and rules, you too can achieve optimum health.

The idea that capital H health is achievable for everyone is a lie, because it ignores that class and income is the greatest indicator for avoiding illness. In Aotearoa, this disproportionately affects Māori communities, who are less likely to get appointments within 24 hours at their GP, and have unmet needs at GP and after-hours services due to cost and/or transport.

Yes, standards of health in internet-fuelled wellness culture are absolutely unattainable, but where does that leave those who are unable to use GP services, pay for prescriptions, and physically get to healthcare facilities? We get sick and accept that sickness as a new median level of health, while being sold on a plethora of inaccessible miracle cures online. It doesn’t help that wellness bloggers shit on white flour, tinned beans, processed foods and frozen vegetables, which feature heavily on the shopping lists of poor people doing their best with limited time and money.

It’s a strange sensation to have optimum health dangled just out of reach with a thousand-dollar price tag. It sounds like an exaggeration, but if you’ve dabbled in the realm of online wellness you’ll know what a healthy lifestyle looks like in our digital age. The old adage of “eat less, do more” no longer suffices, as the list of processes that constitute modern wellness grows longer and longer.

Is that paleo? (Photo: Getty Images)

Researching this article, I went down a rabbit hole of “morning routine” videos by largely white, young, female and vegan lifestyle vloggers. They wake up at sunrise, drink filtered mineral water, warm water with salt, apple cider vinegar water or herbal tea to “kickstart your metabolism” (have fun finding scientific backing for that claim). This is followed by a long-winded explanation of their organic vegan skincare routine, a guided meditation, rolling out a yoga mat and contorting their bodies into ardha dhanurasana. Add some crystal healing, a green smoothie, burning essential oils, Pilates and you get the general idea. This is all pre-breakfast – if they aren’t engaging in intermittent fasting, a practice which conveniently takes away the need for breakfast altogether.

People seek validation in morning routine and “what I eat in a day” videos, reinforcing the idea that their raw vegan diet is healthy and normal by immersing themselves in that online sphere. X vlogger is living proof that xyz diet is working because she looks so healthy and happy in her well-curated and edited posts. When 2.3 million results come up with the search term “healthy morning routine”, and 5.5 million for “what I eat in a day”, it seems we’re desperate to compare our diets with others in order to validate our own choices.

Diet itself isn’t simple any more, because the food group demonised by those-in-the-know has pin-balled around in recent decades, from fat, to carbs, to gluten, to sugar. Reading about the ideal diet is an experiment in separating fact from fiction, and a few things have become clear to me. Government guidelines aren’t appealing because they encourage small changes to lifestyle, and aren’t promoted by a lycra-wearing blonde 20-year-old. Anything that makes starving yourself socially excusable is encouraged. The restrictions around what should be avoided in any modern diet make it easy to refuse food and restaurant dinners. None of the principles behind these diets stand up scientifically, but people are desperate for a quick fix, a set of rules to follow, food groups to cut out, and a simple philosophy.

The paleo diet relies on the idea that cavemen in the palaeolithic era didn’t get fat, so if we eat like them we won’t either. Never mind that this is a logical fallacy, because food scarcity ensured no one could get obese then, and never mind our bodies have evolved over time to digest new foods. The plethora of new diets that hinge on false beliefs is nothing more than a marketing exercise that proves how desperate people are to be thin. People aren’t willing to compensate, limit intake, or introduce variety: they just want a list of foods that are allowed or not allowed.

As the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world decide which food group is banned, pockets of the health-food industry emerge, all hellbent on making a profit out of fat-free, ketogenic, gluten-free and raw vegan products. None of these decisions are based on scientific backing, just whatever diet has the most dramatic short-term weight loss and anecdotal support of Insta-gurus at any given time. Health and wellness magazines churn out headlines that proclaim the health benefits parroted by social media influencers on so-and-so-free diets, and these beliefs go unquestioned because those on the diet are thin, and thus, healthy.

Not skinny, #strong (Photo: Getty Images)

Disordered eating turned into a culture and packaged as self-care is one of the most single-handedly damaging ideas presented to young people. After you peel back a few layers, clean eating has always been about losing weight and being thin. It’s the same emaciated, sad-looking thinspiration girl of the pro-anorexia generation repackaged with glowing skin and a big smile, holding a tropical smoothie. Starved waif girl is replaced with #fitspiration girl, an Instagram model who isn’t skinny, but #strong! Fitspiration girl has the same figure, but also pushes the myth that “calories in” (food) need to be compensated for by calories out (burnt via exercise).

The truth of clean-eating is that intelligent, self-aware girls are far from blind to the fad’s behind-the-scenes marketing, but still internalise the lists of banned foods and the associated feelings of guilt. These same girls know that being thin isn’t synonymous with optimal health, but still cut out food groups and exercise in order to eat at all. Clean eating is a paradox that even those in the depths of disordered behaviour believe on some level is healthy, harmless self-care. The smug satisfaction that comes from eating clean is probably leaving you tired and hungry and deficient in vitamin B12, while coaxing out disordered behaviours one might be susceptible to genetically. Clean eating is clearly exacerbating the symptoms of those who suffer from disordered eating (and introducing rule-based eating — a hallmark of sort-of disorder orthorexia — to young girls en masse.)

I would argue that most people are two degrees away from someone who has suffered from a clinical eating disorder (which — don’t get me wrong — correlate with but aren’t inherently caused by clean eating). I would also say that there is not one woman or girl I know who has not done a fad diet, counted calories, cut out entire food groups, exercised obsessively, been fixated on their appearance and frantically Googled weight-loss secrets. Clean eating develops its own currency: where unhealthy behaviours can be transformed into socially acceptable ones. Starving yourself because a fast, a detox or a cleanse. Counting calories becomes hitting your macronutrient targets. Fad diets become healthy, long-term lifestyles and food philosophies. Saying no to food at restaurants and friends’ houses is fine now, because you’re only eating one meal a day now, or you’re vegan, or cutting out carbs and anyway, you had a huge lunch and you’re, like, totally stuffed now!

Make no mistake, little has changed. The fad diets of yore have just been repackaged as wholesome food philosophies that implicitly encourage restriction (but in a cute, excusable way). Diet culture damages your mental health and gets packaged as wellness, while health-and-wellness capitalists profit. They can teeter on the line between false advertising and bogus health claim, and get bought up en masse by gullible consumers. Now, health-food industries can hire out YouTubers and sponsor Instagram health gurus to promote products for them, package their brand in a more appealing way. Corporate misogyny is still creating body standards that are unattainable for woman, except this time it can be pushed by “real” woman online too.

Eat pasta. It’s yum (Photo: Getty Images)

In the 2010s, when “Instagram influencer” is a coherent phrase, diet culture has changed immensely. Online personalities and bloggers have replaced chefs, doctors and registered dietitians in terms of how we receive nutritional advice. When Gwyneth Paltrow or Deliciously Ella subscribes to a gluten-free diet, so do thousands (!) of their followers; the modern-day equivalent of practising medicine without a licence. These people can create immense pressure in the online world, but the lack of accountability (that government agencies and registered dietitians work under) means people can make fantastic claims with no backing, and have people around the world believe them whole-heartedly.

The evocative language that wellness influencers use is one of the most manipulative aspects of this whole industry. Because they have to skate around the lack of scientific evidence for their claims, they have to prove their beliefs are sound by using persuasive writing techniques. You can implant the idea that sugar should be cut out entirely by talking about how terribly unnatural refined white sugar is, how it makes you an addict and a slave to villainous Big Sugar, and how it’s a deadly poison that causes cancer. Of course, this creates feelings of disgust and probably shame the next time you ingest white sugar.

Don’t get me wrong, we should stick to the government-recommended amount of added sugar, but this is not the suggestion of online food philosophers. The suggestion, of course, is to replace sugar with cleaner, less-processed alternatives like maple syrup, brown rice syrup, or coconut sugar (as if you should be looking to get your antioxidants from maple syrup even though it’s still… sugar). You might also notice that these so-called replacements (all just sugar!) are all three or four times more expensive per gram than white caster sugar, a common denominator in the products of the free-from aisles. Using these health foods is proof that you are richer, healthier and cleaner than those sad poor people who haven’t realised white sugar is a toxic poison.

Kidding, of course. The calories you ingest for fuel aren’t reflective of some moral cleanliness, or your purity as a human being. You aren’t what you eat, and we can’t keep attaching holier-than-thou moral values to food because it implies that those who can’t afford, or don’t want to eat pure, clean, raw foods 24/7 are the opposite: dirty, sinful and toxic. When we create a dichotomy of foods that you are or aren’t allowed to eat, you place a moral value on nourishment, projecting feelings of guilt onto a bowl of pasta, or a slice of cake. These semantics are hugely important when you have an audience of insecure young girls, as most clean-eating bloggers do. By evangelising the food pyramid into can and cannot, we encourage restrictive behaviour as the only way to eat healthily.

But there’s more than one way to be healthy. It’s possible to eat without shame and guilt. Reject the advances of health and wellness capitalists. Eat what you want, when you want. Make a list of foods you avoid for no reason and work your way through them. Unfollow all the fitness gurus and Instagram models. Stop buying black coffee just because of the calories in milk. Don’t attach moral value to what you ate for dinner. Maple syrup is just expensive sugar. Throw out your scales. Ask yourself who is profiting off your dietary choices. Stop taking advice from social media personalities. Turn your mirrors to face the wall sometimes. Delete the app off your phone that counts calories, or macros, or measures how many calories you burn walking to school. If you aren’t actually coeliac, then ask yourself if you’re really gluten intolerant. You can eat even if you don’t go to the gym that day. Invite your friends over for a potluck. Cook with your family. Try new recipes. Eat a bowl of pasta, with salt, with olive oil, with fresh herbs. For fuck’s sake, eat two bowls if you want to.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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