Why nutrition advice from Hollywood should be taken with a grain of salt

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on April 21, 2015

As we look for health and nutrition advice, you can't miss how celebrities’ opinions and routines are front and centre in the media along with those of professional experts. For many of us, pop culture has become a guide for healthy living.

Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the faculty of law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and self-confessed lover of pop culture, decided to investigate just how pervasive the impact of celebrities is on our lifestyle.

In his new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture And Science Clash (Viking), Caulfield looks at a number of our illusions: the illusion of celebrity authority, the illusion that you too can become a celebrity and the illusion that celebrity status is worth having.

To research the book, Caulfield immersed himself in celebrity culture. From reading every issue of People magazine for a year, trying Gwyneth Paltrow’s 21-day Goop cleanse and even attending an American Idol audition, he sought to separate the nonsense from the common sense by comparing celebrity advice with scientific research. As a result, he came up with some valuable insight and guidance for his readers, especially for parents. And it’s a fun read. (By the way, he did lose weight on the cleanse, but regained it quickly.)

In his analyses, Caulfield found there was enormous pressure on women to be thin – especially to lose weight quickly after having their babies. This was a prevalent theme. He cites the headline of a multi-page article titled, “Body After Baby! How Hollywood’s Hottest New Mommies Got Their Sexy Silhouettes Back.” Images of celebrities and how fast tthey've lost weight creates contests in the media as to who can get back to their pre-baby weight the fastest. These messages can be damaging as women have unrealistic expectations of themselves, particularly for first-time mothers, who may be in a more vulnerable state.

Cleanses, he notes, are one of Hollywood’s favourite routines. While the merit of various strange dietary recommendations may be open to debate, Caulfield notes that there is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting cleanses. “It actually sends a dangerous message about how we should go about nutrition and lifestyle,” he writes. Our bodies are already built to cleanse or detox themselves through the liver and kidney.

These expensive products don't reinforce to kids how to make positive food choices, either. With their smartphones and other digital devices, kids are very savvy about social media, which concerns Caulfield. He cautions parents to be aware of their kids’ use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media. “Celebrities’ tweets and Facebook posts can seem very personal to your child,” he writes. The fact that the particular celebrity may have millions of followers doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the celebrity guidance. Katy Perry tweeting about her “supplement and vitamin LYFE” with a photo of herself carrying three massive bags of vitamins she depends on sends a message to her young fans to seek health through vitamins rather than healthy food choices.

Caulfield also expresses concerns about the juicing trend, especially for kids. Though it may be an easy way to expand the variety in a child’s diet in terms of vegetables and fruit, it can also have a downside. With the high calorie counts of some of these concoctions and the fact that liquid calorie meals are not satisfying, compared to ones where solid food is eaten, juicing can contribute weight gain. “A child drinking a 600 calorie juice may have difficulty realizing it’s supposed to be a meal replacement,” he says. Just think of how you feel after eating an apple compared to having a small glass of apple juice. So after having the juice, it’s not at all surprising that a kid might look for some food to eat. The result? Calorie overload. He sums up the consequences of celebrity lifestyle advice very basically. “We become obsessed with all the details of what a diet should be, whether it’s about organic, GMO-free or gluten-free, for example, and we lose the simple truths of eating a healthy diet. The evidence shows the more complicated your regimen is, the less likely you are to maintain it.”

 

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2015.


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