#WTFWEDNESDAY: "Health Washing"

My goal is #WTFWednesday is to provide unbiased information + guidance regarding health + wellness topics of interest, so that you can then do more research for yourself. For most of these topics, I wouldn’t consider myself a full-on “expert” - but I have familiarized myself enough with the basics to talk intelligently about the topic and to know where to look (or to look at all!) for more information. I’m always interested in hearing your personal experience or opinions based on your own research.

I often joke around that I was buying organic food + into non-traditional wellness practices "before it was cool"; these days, everyone from celebrities to your work bestie are praising this superfood or that new workout method. And while I'm always excited for more people to get on the better-health-bandwagon, the surplus of conflicting information no doubt leaves people confused + overwhelmed. And in the midst of it, individuals, groups, and companies are taking advantage.

"Health washing" - whether you've heard of it or not - is prevalent in current mainstream + social media. Like it's not-so-distant cousin "green washing," it's all about branding, marketing, and in some cases, flat out lying to promote or sell a product, person, or idea. Health washing exploits consumers' genuine desire for better health (whatever that looks like), and preys on their aspirations + fears, and certainly only adds to the misinformation + confusion.

In a lot of ways, I don't necessarily think health washing is intentional. When it comes to health, the reality is a lot of what we're talking about is, in fact, science. And, let's be honest - science is hard! And confusing! So by dumbing down, overstating, or making sweeping generalizations (all of which may actually have been rooted in fact somewhere down the line), the idea is to make consumers understand just enough to be persuaded.

I was spurred to cover the topic thanks to this recent Well + Good article on the topic. Perhaps somewhat ironic, given that pieces from the online health + wellness media company can span from research-based + fact-driven to complete fluff. (Then again, in full disclosure, I have been featured as an expert in the publication here and here.)

The original article is worth a read, and features insights from noted Nutrition Policy expert Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH. I think one of the most important concepts to take away from the piece is "reductive nutrition," also known as "nutritionism." This refers to reducing foods down to their individual nutrients (high in fiber or low in fat), instead of consider the food as a whole. The truth is, while science may know that certain vitamins are beneficial for this, or fiber is good for that, what is not fully understood is how the individual components of natural, whole foods synergistically work together.

And this is where I find that nature is always more wise than we humans; although an orange is high in sugar, it's also a good source of vitamin C, and the fiber contained in the pulp can help offset the negative effects on blood sugar. Some brands of eggs market them as being high in Omega-3 fats, as a result of careful supplementation of the hens' diets. But when hens are pasture-raised, as nature intended, their eggs are inherently higher in Omega-3s (and Vitamin D) thanks to grazing on grass + grubs (their natural diet).

Prior to my full-time work in heath, fitness + nutrition, I studied marketing + communications in college and my first job was for a well-known (if infamous) NYC advertising + branding guru. Which is all just to say, health washing is truly at the intersection of my education, experience + passion. In this edition of #WTFWednesday, I talk more about the topic, including some helpful tips for how to not be swayed by clever marketing.

While practically anything can be health washed, food + nutrition products are a common culprit. Here are some of my tips to avoid being swayed by food-related health washing:

  • Buy your food in as close to its “natural” state as possible. You should be able to recognize it for it is. You don’t need to worry about marketing claims if there isn’t a label.

  • If it does have a label, look for the ingredients first. Can you pronounce them? How many are there? (5 or less is a great goal.)

  • Keep in mind, not all “weird” ingredients are bad; if you are going to buy something shelf-stable, it needs some preservatives from a food safety standpoint.

  • Ask yourself: if I really wanted to, could I make this myself at home? If the answer is no because it's so highly processed, then skip it.

  • If you care that much, do your research. Google the pastured egg company to which you are giving your hard earned dollars. See if there are local farms or CSAs you can patron.

  • What out for “enhanced” products, like probiotics in cereal + CBD in candy

  • Is the food itself "healthy"?

  • Did it survive processing? (And then what about when you cook it or eat it?)

  • Does it actually contain a therapeutic dose?

  • Can you just eat something that is naturally a good source of X? (like yogurt for probiotics)

Have you noticed products you think are an example of health washing? What claims have you been swayed by? Let me know in the comments below!

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