Fact check the habits of the most irritatingly health-conscious person you know, and you may find that the science behind them does not hold up. An abundance of healthy eating fads has rocked headlines over the years, from low-carb diets to GMO-free foods. Meanwhile, in the name of promoting mental well-being, therapy animals and fidget spinners have taken over educational institutions.
The research underlying these popular trends has repeatedly been called into question, and the jury is still out as to whether they are truly effective. Multiple sources have debunked the hysteria surrounding carbs and GMOs. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that fidget spinners relieve stress or assist with focus. And as fun as it is to cuddle with dogs around exam time, research supporting therapy animals actually alleviating stress is struggling to keep up with their increasing pervasiveness in public settings.
Undoubtedly, specialized health regimes can relieve a number of serious health conditions. For instance, someone with coeliac disease — an autoimmune illness caused by severe gluten-intolerance in patients — may significantly improve their quality of life by going gluten-free. Simultaneously, a large number of consumers continue to erroneously subscribe to various health habits, holding a seemingly blind faith in the possibility of self-improvement.
There are a number of reasons why health fads can skyrocket in popularity, and if gone unchecked, misinformation can spread like wildfire. Though media outlets may effectively keep the public in the loop about scientific discoveries, their coverage of such topics doesn’t always accurately represent the findings in research studies.
Though one might excuse the difficulties of translating complicated jargon for general readers, other tendencies in science reporting can be more nefarious. Conflating correlation with causation and ‘cherry-picking’ results without regard to the broader literature can easily blow stories out of proportion and fool inattentive readers. The rise of clickbait and listicles, which often condense and oversimplify scientific conclusions, is not helping matters: Google the words “according to science” and you’ll get over 550 million hits.
Prominent faces in the media can also have a particularly strong influence. Following the birth of her son, actress January Jones ingested pills made from her own placenta, claiming that doing so would provide her with beneficial vitamins. Even the most notorious of critics are not immune: Simon Cowell got into the habit of carrying around cans of oxygen, allegedly to help combat aging and alleviate stress and fatigue. Though various theses and similar celebrity crazes have been repeatedly called into question by researchers, the immense followings of many starlets may continue to inspire copycats in the general population.
Indeed, from ‘productivity hacks’ to 72-hour cleanses, many of us have experienced the peculiar sort of joy associated with following trends, especially when we think doing so might make us better people overnight. Those who jump on fad diets, for example, may be attracted to the apparently easily attainable change associated with abiding by the regimen for just a few weeks — whereas investing in a more long-term and sustainable solution can seem more difficult to stomach.
Then there is the human tendency of falling victim to subconscious biases, which may lead us to believe that something will improve our well-being despite contrary evidence. Confirmation bias makes us more likely to believe a statement if it confirms our pre-existing beliefs. The rapid news cycle and endless stream of information now available at our fingertips means people, more than ever, seek out stories confirming what they think they already know.
People can be understandably sensitive about personal health and illness, which can make them less likely to listen when others challenge what they believe. In 2015, Alan Levinovitz received intense backlash and even hate mail after he released his book, The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, which was written in response to the frenzy that has emerged touting the allegedly wondrous health benefits of gluten-free diets.
While Levinovitz acknowledges the genuineness of using gluten-free diets to treat coeliacs and people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, he suggests that there is a wider community of people who avoid gluten and are acting based on misinformation. “It’s terrifying to think that we might not understand ourselves,” Levinovitz writes. “That we might be mistaken about our own bodies and about the effects of what we put into our bodies on ourselves.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to your health, playing follow-the-leader can have detrimental consequences. One such consequence involves needlessly investing time and money into a habit that simply won’t work any of the promised miracles. In some cases, subscribing to a health fad may actually do more harm than good.
Adopting a gluten-free diet when not medically necessary, for instance, may mean ingesting higher calorie counts while simultaneously depriving yourself of essential vitamins. This, combined with the higher prices associated with gluten-free products, means that jumping on the bandwagon may ironically render some non-coeliacs — and their bank accounts — less healthy in the long run.
It is also important to remember that an intense focus on well-being, lacking sound evidence to justify it, can steer even the most well-intentioned people in the wrong direction entirely. Anti-vaccination movements, which promulgate the repeatedly debunked belief that vaccines cause conditions like autism, are arguably rooted in a deep-seated — though fundamentally misguided — concern for well-being. The message of these movements continues to thrive around the world: among other frustratingly preventable tragedies, anti-vaxxers are connected to a severe outbreak of measles experienced by a Minneapolis Somali-American community, as well as high infant mortality rates in Romania caused by infectious diseases like tuberculosis and rubella.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to come to that. There are ways for media outlets to be held accountable in the event they misrepresent research findings; researchers and readers alike can do so by writing letters to the editor, commenting with fact check requests, or working together with the scientists at the heart of the issue to make public what truly is the case.
In turn, to combat the itch to jump on the bandwagon, consumers should be encouraged to think critically about the stories they read, the products they buy, and the lengths they are willing to go to in the name of self-improvement.
A crucial step in addressing this issue is acknowledging that subscribing to a quick fix is hardly a substitute for a long-term or sustainable health remedy. Given the human tendency to seek out instant gratification, and now that fidget spinners are now sold in virtually every gas station and airport, doing so may unfortunately be an uphill battle.