The wellness lie: a dangerous game

Social media gives rise to ‘wellness’ gurus and pseudo-doctors who can lead you down a path full of food myths and fake science, so why do so many fall for them? Asks Emily Muddeman.

What do you picture when you think about wellness? Perhaps yoga, smoothie bowls, a vegan diet, beautiful women?

Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand Goop is the epitome of it all, and there are thousands of others representing this lifestyle on social media, mainly white, thin women. These wellness figures inspire others to lead similar lives and offer advice on how to replicate their wholesome lifestyles. Sounds positive right? But a recent BBC documentary, The Greatest Insta Con, highlighted just how dangerous these influencers can be.

It followed the story of Belle Gibson, a young, beautiful, blonde Australian who, after being told she had four months to live, cured her inoperable brain cancer through food and lifestyle. She became one of Instagram’s first “super influencers”, with over 300,000 followers (small compared to today’s figures for many), who adored her and tried to mirror her lifestyle. She went on to have her own cookbook published by Penguin books, and an app, The Whole Pantry, developed and backed by Apple.

Among her fans were three women who were the focus of the documentary, which was told through their stories. First, Pixie, who at 19 became obsessed with healthy or ‘clean’ eating, largely because of Belle, and developed the eating disorder orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food). We also heard from Kylie, who tragically had cancer herself, and wasn’t seeing much progress with chemotherapy, so decided to stop medical treatment after discovering Belle.

And finally, Maxine, a university student with a chronic inflammatory disease. All of these women became obsessed with Belle’s story and lifestyle, believing they too could cure their health problems. She was the ultimate inspiration to them, and hundreds of thousands of others.  

Eventually, journalists became sceptical about Belle, and it was revealed that she never had cancer. It was all one big lie. Belle was exposed, leaving her followers distraught, angry and humiliated. She was fined £240,000 by the Australian government and had to start a new life out of the public eye.

While Belle’s story is an extreme example, and justice was served, it’s not hard to find similar examples today. One of which is the Medical Medium, Anthony William, who has a whopping 3.3 million Instagram followers, numerous published books and makes bold claims about the healing properties of celery juice. Is he a qualified doctor? No, but somehow, he manages to sell his pseudoscience to millions of people.

Woman drinking smoothie
Social media is full of people peddling various food and nutrition goals and diets. 

Then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle website Goop, which coincidentally has featured the Medical Medium before. It’s not just the ridiculous products the brand sells that are shocking (including a $75 “vagina-scented” candle; her vagina, to be exact), but also the claims she makes about food and diet.

She recently promoted a book on Instagram that she wrote the foreword for: Intuitive Fasting by ‘Dr’ Will Cole (again, not a medical doctor), which just about sums up the ridiculousness. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet culture that teaches you to stop counting calories, eat to fill your hunger cues, and eat what makes you feel happy. So to add restriction into the mix through fasting is completely contradictory.

A common theme between Belle, Gwyneth and Anthony, the Medical Medium, is that none of them really have any authority to be offering health and diet advice, and their primary goal is to make money, rather than help people. So why do so many people fall for it? It’s difficult to say exactly but what’s certain is that they are all allowed to have a huge platform without any kind of censorship. Instagram certainly doesn’t seem worried about the spread of misinformation.

Their authority is then strengthened by book deals by the likes of huge publication companies like Penguin, and apps developed and backed by Apple, like in Belle’s case. When huge companies help to publish these people, this reinforces the trust.

For vulnerable people, ‘wellness’ is very tempting. It’s seductive and intriguing. But ultimately, the problem is there is no definition of peak wellness, leaving people feeling guilty that they aren’t good enough because they aren’t leading the ‘perfect’ wellness lifestyle.

At best, these people feed into diet culture and perpetuate seemingly perfect, unattainable lives, and at worst, they lead people to develop eating disorders and stop lifesaving medical treatment in search of a ‘natural’ way.

If after reading this you feel inspired to follow people who dispel myths and misinformation around food and lifestyle, here are some accounts to follow:

Pixie Turner (yes, the same Pixie who once fell for Belle’s story): @pixienutrition.

Dr Joshua Wolrich (a real medical doctor this time): @drjoshuawolrich.

Food Science Babe: @foodsciencebabe.


Leave a Reply

  1. This article has made me reconsider my subscription to these articles. It is completely unbalanced, and doesn’t acknowledge those who have seen huge benefit from changing diet and lifestyle. Those who buy produce from river ford do so for the health benefits of avoiding pesticides as well as environmental benefits. This type of article completely shuns your customer base. Very disappointing

    1. Hello Disaspointed, sorry to hear you feel that. I think the main point this opinion piece makes is to look closely at anything commercial when health claims are being made – whether from an individual wellness influencer or a large pharmaceutical company. There are huge claims made by both and it can be so hard to cut through the hype, especially if you are reaching out when unwell, so fact checking and research are key.

      There are massive benefits to making healthy lifestyle changes, including the ones set out in the recent National Food Strategy which calls for regenerative farming and a huge reduction in processed foods; they are even suggesting GPs prescribe fresh fruit and veg for those at risk of diet related illness.

      Although Wicked Leeks is published by Riverford, we are editorially independent and we do cover more challenging subjects around food and farming that we feel need bringing to light.

    2. There’s clean eating and complete and utter nonsense, unqualified people posing as doctors saying a spirit is guiding him is crazy! I follow Dr Wolrich he calls out this stupidity.

      I thought this was a great article to raise awareness of pointless influences making money from people’s vulnerability.

      If you Google the medical medium reviews on independent sites you will see vulnerable people who were let down by him and ignored when the going got tough. He has a great social media team so any negativity on his accounts are removed and blocked immediately.

  2. I am afraid I agree with ‘Disappointed’ above. There is a massive difference between Paltrow and Anthony, the Medical Medium. He has helped two people I know who suffered for years with IBS taking medications from the doctor with no avail. I gave them both the same Medical Medium and they healed themselves learning about nutrition from his book and one no longer required medication.

    Before you push doctors who are trained by big pharma and whose nutritional knowledge is minimal, I suggest you learn about bit more about the subject you wish to be an ‘influence’ on.

    Good day

    1. Hi Melly, The Fermentalist’s comments below on doing your own research into any claims first seem to be key here. What works for one person may not work for another, and this opinion piece flags up how little regulation there is to wellness claims made on social media and how damaging it can be for some. .

  3. I too have read ‘with interest’ articles like this. If I’m honest, I became more interested when I was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago. I am planning to write my own book covering a narrow subject, but in order to do so I have undertaken formal training in how to evaluate and interpret published, peer-reviewed scientific medical research. For any article I now read I look for the research, the bias and the conflicts of interest and also the fundamental flaw in most ‘articles’. This common flaw is misinterpretation of the results, generally linked to a weakness in understanding statistics – maths! It’s the same reason the jury originally acquitted OJ Simpson.
    Much as (‘Dr’) Gillian McKeith – the poo doctor (that wasn’t) was entertaining to watch, you must take all these things with a pinch of salt and do your own research.
    Diet has an extremely big influence on health. There’s plenty of research available – it’s published by scientists (including qualified medics amongst them).

  4. Hello

    I agree with the comments above. This article is very poorly written and researched.

    As someone who has improved many of my own health issues on my own, after traditional medicine failed me, I am hugely grateful to many of the so-called ‘wellness experts’ who are out there and showing how diet and lifestyle changes can have a dramatic impact on health.

    Of course we need to use our judgement and not be taken in by extreme approaches – but don’t make the mistake of sneering at everyone who wants to share tips on how to use diet and lifestyle changes to improve health. Traditional medicine is pretty clueless about this, sadly.

    1. Hi JoRo, great that you have found good sources of advice that have supported your wellbeing, and that is indeed the point – the more extreme approaches may be quite damaging. Time for a hybrid where wellbeing and nutrition are a bigger part of conventional medicine – and the extremes of alternatives touted on social media are more closely regulated.

      Diet related illness is involved in 64,000 deaths per year in the UK according to the new National Food strategy, which advocates a healthy plant based diet with return to regenerative farming at its heart – so change is long overdue, and maybe the report will help bring a more balanced approach to the diet debate .

  5. With regards to Anthony, the Medical Medium who you disparage in your article above where you try to influence people, I suggest you read the pages and pages of testimonies in the forward of one of his books, such as from people like Kerri Walsh Jennings, 3 times gold Olympic medal winner

    “The reinforcement from Anthony that our bodies are capable of incredible healing and resilience is a much needed message. Too often I want quick fixes that ultimately lead to more problems. Real nutrition is the best medicine and Anthony inspires us all to fuel our body, mind and spirit with nature’s bounty; it’s powerful medicine from the Source.”

    Or from “Craig Kallman, Chairman and EO, Atlantic Records

    “Anthony is a magician for all my label’s recording artists and if he were a record album, he would far surpass Thriller. His ability is nothing short of profound, remarkable, extraordinary, and mind blowing. He is a luminary whose books are filled with prophecies. This is the future of medicine”.

    There are pages of similar comments.

    Alternative, you could read a book by Maria Treben “Health Through God’s Pharmacy”. Her treatments are backed up by cancer researcher Prof. Dr. Dr. Paul G. Seeger .

    Prof. Dr. Dr. Seeger (6 June 1903 – 26 April 1991) was an eminent German physician, biologist, professor of medicine, cancer researcher and author of several books on the subject of cancer and its non-invasive or natural healing and prevention.

    Dr. Seeger – a two-time Nobel prize nominee (1979 and 1980) – also wrote a small but important book titled “Die Wunderheilungen der Maria Treben – Irrglauben oder Wahrheit?” [roughly: Maria Treben’s miracle cures – fact or fallacy?] published in 1985 in which he explored the biochemical science and rationale behind the plants Maria Treben (often successfully) prescribed for healing cancer or preventing relapses after surgery.

    While Maria Treben was viciously attacked for her work on the part of established medical circles, Prof. Dr. Dr. Paul G. Seeger came to the conclusion that there are good biochemical reasons why the plants she prescribed would indeed work against cancer.

    Seeger starts by describing the basic facts why cells will turn cancerous including the role of oxygen respiration and the destruction of cytochrome oxidase which forces the cell to revert to the more primitive fermentation of glucose.

    He writes that by adding an abundance of hydrogen acceptors from plants, the cancerous cell can be assisted in returning to normalcy – as he was able to demonstrate in the years 1956-64 during eight years of scientific research measuring cellular respiration.

    Seeger goes on to describe various plant hydrogen acceptors (a number of anthocyanidins such as cyanidin, delphinidin, pelargonidin, myrtillin, malvidin, as well as flavones, quercetin, rutine, and others) and the plants in which they are found.

    He lists and discusses the major plants recommended against cancer in Maria Treben’s “Health from God’s Pharmacy”. These are calendula (marigold), Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Chelidonium majus (greater celandine; in Europe tetterwort), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), Plantago lanceolata, Smallflower Hairy Willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum), Malva sylvestris, Cleavers (Galium aparine) and horsetail (Equisetum).

    He describes the chemical components and the number of hydrogen acceptors of these plants and concludes that all of them boast potent medicinal properties while several can be considered highly active and effective anti-cancer plants.

    1. Glad you are on the right path Melly. Indeed many of the compounds from plants can help us avoid cancer when we are receiving them as part of our regular diet.
      Supplements on the whole do not work, as the substance tends not to be bioavailable, or there’s more than we can absorb naturally.
      Importantly however, none of these substances is yet proven to be useful as a cure to cancer. None. But the research is ongoing.

  6. We should be skeptical and critical of all information relating to health and nutrition, not just that from outside the mainstream. Most doctors in the UK are not educated in nutrition and many are downright ignorant. Not long ago doctors recommended smoking!
    Surely one of the important lessons of the last 16 months is that we should all do our own research especially in relation to health. We know big pharma and its political affiliations have been corrupted. It needs only a small amount of homework to learn of this. Emily Muddleman has clearly not bothered to do this let alone think critically. We should also think critically about all those connected to pharma and not blindly comply with the machinations of vested interests. After all, it is well documented that Phizer is subject to some of the largest criminal fines in history for issuing misleading and harmful information related to health.

    1. Hi Rodrigo, there are indeed massive issues with the global pharmaceutical industry and that is not something this article focuses on – I think you’d need to write several books to cover it! Instead, this opinion piece seeks to raise awareness that social media as a platform for those in the ‘wellness industry’ has benefits when sharing well researched health info in an accessible format, but can be damaging too due to the lack of regulation around claims made. We each have our own path to wellness, but it is important that in finding it people are making informed choices which they cannot do if the information is not presented in an honest, accurate way.

  7. Well it looks like many here are critical of the short piece Emily wrote, but it seems to me she got it about right. But to react to those who are considering their subscription on the basis of this one article, I do have some sympathy – after all we have seen enough world ‘leaders’ disparage science in favour of their own brand of truth and it has led many to become sceptical about medicine, nutrition and science in general. Seems it’s all of a piece with those who now disbelieve experts of any kind. So I’m not surprised at the reaction Emily got – so many people now want to believe in alternative routes to wellness and frankly, if they’re harmless, fine. But when people – maybe vulnerable or desperate – are suckered into following quacks, believing in them on the slimmest of evidence, we, society, has a problem. The best thing I’ve found to counter all this – as with everything these days – is to read and research as widely as possible and from as many conflicting sources as possible. One thing I would say is where people stuff their websites with glowing testimonials, it’s usually just good old fashioned marketing hype covering up…well, not very much at all. It hurts when people have a pop at something you believe in with all your heart, but I think it’s always worth reflecting whether they have a point. Or even half a point. Good health to you all – wherever you may find it.

  8. I too found myself caught up in the world or “wellness” a few years ago and became obsessed with eating “clean” and Google searching every symptom plus every natural remedy/supplement available to fix myself. It’s been a long one, but my journey has taken me all the way to regenerative farming and to soil health. I have focused on whole foods, mostly organic and minimal to no processing 80% of the time. My diet is far more balanced these days and far more “natural” and my health has never better! I absolutely and 100% support organic over GMO foods for human health as well as soil and environmental health. I question some of the recommended accounts to follow at the end of this article which seem to be in active opposition to organic and promote eating processed and fast food as being acceptable. Why has someone opened an insta account to spend so much time defending GMO’s and pesticides even if the science says it’s safe.. in small quantities most things are safe but when we live in a world full of known toxins such as Glyphosate in our food system, harmful levels of air pollution, toxins on our furniture, wall paint, in plastics, make up, shampoo, hand sanitisers and so on, we are taking in little bits at every turn which amounts to too much! and we are sicker than every because of it. Surely the aim is to make fresh fruit and vegetables and nutritious foods like nuts and seeds readily available to all people everywhere as a basic human right? Why not spent time campaigning for this instead of bashing the EWG who are working to minimise our exposure to harmful chemicals.

    I’m really not sure that all of the suggested social media accounts are aligned with the good work you do…

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal journey to what sounds like a very healthy, rounded and grounded approach to wellbeing, The suggested accounts are part of the opinion piece, and are the author’s illustrations of influencers that don;t feed into promoting the unhealthy aspects of online diet culture.


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