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The Unhealthy Side To Wellness

13th November 2018

Wellness, it’s just a word, right?

It is now a word with a multi-million pound industry built around it, but there is also an unhealthy side to wellness.

If you look around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you are one Avocado on Toast,
expensive nutritional supplement (read pyramid sales scheme) or Yoga class away from everlasting health and vitality.

What’s the problem?

It may come as a surprise from someone within the Yoga and Healthcare industry that this all makes me feel mighty uncomfortable. I find a lot of it pious, pretentious and preachy. And not just a little dubious scientifically. Of course, the intention behind it all is (mostly) good. Encouraging people to make more nutritious food choices, exercise more, schedule some time out and look after themselves isn’t a bad thing. And who wouldn’t want to promote good health?

The trouble is, it’s all getting a little out of hand.

Anyone, regardless of expertise, can start evangelically spouting health, lifestyle and nutrition advice now and it isn’t without consequence.

A medical colleague of mine has seen 4 cases of patients with significantly abnormal Liver and Kidney function after taking Tumeric, a Dietician colleague was vilified at a literary festival and on social media for daring to suggest that a certain wellness bloggers “Sugar Free Brownies” were not sugar free as Coconut Sugar was listed as one of the ingredients, and this tweet from the Clinical Lead of the Leicester Intestinal Failure Team shows how fed up he is of picking up the pieces….

Orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) is the fastest growing eating disorder and I have genuinely heard people describe sugar as evil. Evil? Really? As in like perpetrators of genocide? It may not be the best thing you can put in your body and many of us eat too much but that is just plain ridiculous.

Much of the marketing of Wellness is based in Pseudoscience, preys on our health anxiety and robs us of our cash to boot. Expensive shakes, supplements and treatments, unpronounceable “super-foods” and not to mention the “Goop Medicine Bag”….a bag of stones that balances your Chakras and are recharged by placing them under the moon…all yours for a mere £76.

And then there’s Yoga, Mindfulness and Meditation. Now I love Yoga, there’s a boat load of science as to what it can do for our minds and bodies. I also meditate regularly and have found it helpful for getting through some tough times, but are they a panacea? Absolutely not. Are they a substitute for
Professional care when you have a mental health problem? No way.

Whilst we can influence our health through our lifestyle choices there are other influences outside our control and they include genetics, childhood socioeconomic status and ethnicity.

And then there’s just bad luck….my daughter has nocturnal Epilepsy, caused by a lack of Blueberries and not enough mindfulness? I think not. Unfortunately, she can’t Yoga her way out of that one. Many of my patients have medical conditions that have not come about through lack of self-care, and I know many people with depression who can’t just PMA themselves out of it with a pop psychology Instagram quote.

One of my patients summed it up beautifully when she said “You have guilt flung at you from every direction”… We label our food, our behaviour and, most scarily, ourselves as “good” or “bad. Good when you eat Kale, bad when you eat a doughnut, we have become smug and not just a little judgy. Wellness has become a virtue.

The reality is that a lot of people are just about keeping it together, holding down a job, feeding the kids and paying the bills. “Self-care” as it is marketed just simply isn’t an option for them because of either finance or circumstance. I suspect in the list of “5 Things I do every morning for success” remembering to put your pants on and get the kids to school on time aren’t listed….

So here’s my top tips for navigating your way through the World of “Wellness”:

- How qualified is the person giving me advice?

Ok qualifications aren’t always everything. I know Yoga teachers who have taught for years and who are hugely knowledgeable but don’t have a 200 hour teacher training qualification. But check out the background of the person giving out the information. What experience do they have, dig a little deeper than the website, we can all have a shiny one of those with a testimonial or two.

- N=1 doesn’t equal evidence.

This is a big one. Just because something worked for one individual doesn’t mean it will work for everyone or that it is evidence that it works. Some medical conditions get better on their own, with time, and that may have coincided with a change in lifestyle. We assume it is our changes that made the difference but this may not be the case.

- Your Liver and Kidneys do a brilliant job of detoxing you ALL THE TIME!!!

I can’t say this one enough. You don’t need to do expensive detoxes or potions. Your incredible body does a brilliant job of that for you…and all for free! Just don’t abuse them…(with drugs, alcohol or Turmeric!)

- Be aware of confirmation bias.

This is something we all do, we seek out information that will support our already held world view. It is hard to be objective and
challenge our long help opinions, especially if we have spent a lot of time (or money!) developing it. Is someone’s advice based on fact, or opinion?

There is a hierarchy in what is classed as evidence as shown in the image. Just because someone shouts loudly or has lots of social media followers, doesn’t make it true!

- You probably don’t need supplements.

If you have a balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg and a mixture of food groups you probably don’t need supplements. We have a saying in sport regarding supplements which goes “If they work they probably aren’t legal, and if they are legal they probably don’t work”. Whilst this relates to substances banned during competition it’s broadly true for the general public too. Of course if you are training for a specific goal then

supplements/additional protein etc can be useful under the guidance of an experienced and qualified trainer, but mostly… save your hard earned cash and just eat real food.

- Don’t demonise entire food groups.

First it was fat, then gluten, then carbohydrates, then dairy and now sugar. There are genuine medical conditions such as coeliac disease that make people genuinely intolerant of food groups like gluten. For the rest of us, the boring “everything in moderation” holds true. Banning entire food groups is a sign of disordered eating that requires professional help.

- Do exercise you enjoy.

No one form of exercise will solve everything. Pilates has been shown to be no more beneficial for back pain than any other exercise, Yoga is great for mind and body but not if you hate it! I see many patients for whom running is their passion, it clears their head and gets their heart and lungs working, there’s no perfect exercise, just find one you enjoy and do it regularly.

- Is this really a miracle cure?

If someone is promising something that seems too good to be true….it probably is.

How can we change it?

One of the issues is a lack of regulation within these industries, you can qualify as Yoga teacher in as little as 80 hours and the title of “nutritionist” is not legally protected (dietitian is!). You can do a short course, set yourself up and most of the public are none the wiser. Yoga is slowly trying to change this but it is complicated and there is a very long way to go. There are certain qualifications to look for in the world of nutrition but most people don’t know what they are.

Which I guess in the end is why I wrote this. I believe those of us within the industry have to speak out, to call out the BS and take responsibility. To know the limits of our knowledge and scope of practice and to signpost people to the proper support when they need it. To be aware of the power of our words and actions and the impact they can have on the people we interact with and above all encourage balance.



You can find out more about my yoga classes by visiting this page >> Anna Curnow Yoga

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