The subtitle of this book is When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. I’m not a big follower of celebrity culture and would generally avoid something with Gwyneth Paltrow’s name on it, but this book by Timothy Caulfield is a critique of the power that celebrity has on our collective psyche. The author, who is a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta, examines this phenomenon from a number of angles – from auditioning for American Idol (didn’t get far) to visiting Dhru Purohit, the founder of the Clean Cleanse program endorsed by Gwyneth. His conclusions are fairly predictable – it’s all nonsense – but it’s fun to read. He also examines the trend towards believing that the celebrity life is accessible to the average person, if the person only works hard enough and “reaches for the stars.” This belief is countered by the very real statistics of success in such fields as acting, music and sports. (I’ll cover this in Part II.)
I live in Vancouver, Canada, a very expensive city in which to live. The climate is the mildest in Canada – it’s sunny and about 10 degrees here, while it’s -11 in Toronto. It’s February, but it’s been so mild that all the spring flowers are poking their heads up to see if it’s April and they missed something. The climate and the whole you-can-ski-you-can-swim appeal of this coastal city attracts a lot of wealthy people. I have a theory that wealthy people are into every health fad there is because they want to live as long as possible in order to enjoy their money to the full. Why not? Well, the amount of silly nonsense that I’ve heard spouted by people who are in search of ways to be healthier and live longer would roll anybody’s eyeballs up into their heads. At the restaurants, we have a gluten-free menu to cater to people who fancy themselves sensitive to gluten, even though there is no scientific evidence that supports these notions. I know people who are into “juicing,” even though it’s not a logical way to consume fruits and vegetables. You don’t get any fibre, and you consume a large amount of sugar – naturally occurring, but still sugar – and it’s ridiculously expensive. I’ve explained the sugar thing to someone and they were surprised, but it’s true. Think about it: richly nutritious vegetables like kale and broccoli do not contain a lot of water, plus the juice they produce does not taste great (I’m making a massive understatement there). In order to pad out these healthy-sounding but nonprofitable vegetables, juice retailers add large quantities of vegetables and fruits such as celery and cucumber, while adding sweetness with apples, carrots and beets. Each beet or carrot only produces a tiny amount of juice, so you need a lot in order to make up a cup of juice. Beets and apples are high in sugar. And even though they’re relatively cheap, you need a massive amount of produce in order to produce a relatively small amount of juice. It’s an incredibly wasteful process, but the notion of this pure nectar being squeezed from fresh fruits and veggies is very attractive. It’s certainly easier than just eating fruit and vegetables because you don’t even have to chew, but it’s definitely not a good way to go, and not really sustainable either.
A 2013 investigation by the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the tremendous benefits of eating an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, but, once again, found juice to be problematic. The research looked at data from almost 190,000 participants and found that individuals who ate whole fruits – especially blueberries, grapes and apples – reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by 23 percent. But individuals who drank one or two servings of fruit juice actually increased their risk. So, put down that expensive, trendy, kale-infused liquid and pick up a real apple. (p. 52)
I use the term “notions” about a lot of health fads because that’s what they are – notions. Completely unsupported by scientific evidence, but they are ideas that feel good in some people’s brains. These ideas “make sense” to people. Some ideas, like juicing, are relatively harmless. However, some are not so benign. Take colonic irrigation – which Caulfield touches on, as there are lots of celebrities who subscribe to this silly and disgusting practice. I think people picture their digestive systems as some kind of simple drainage system. They see their bathroom drain clog up and imagine that their digestive system is somehow similar and should be cleaned out, with Drano and a snake. Colonic irrigation is more than disgusting, however; it’s potentially very dangerous. It can cause “nausea, vomiting, infection, and in rare circumstances, perforation of the bowel.” This can kill you. “It can also adversely impact your electrolytes and your gut’s natural bacteria.”
The other celebrity-endorsed and dangerous “health” advice is that which discourages people from vaccinating their kids against disease. This is so incredibly stupid and dangerous that I don’t even want to talk about it here. Plus, I’ve already posted on this topic.
Caulfield examines many celebrity-endorsed fads, such as cleanses, the idea of “toxins”, the imaginary benefits of organic foods, cosmetic acupuncture, coffee as a treatment for cellulite, and others. I was actually kind of surprised myself about the organic thing. I’ve heard so many times about the benefits of organic produce that while I’m not a slavish consumer of organics (I’m skeptical, plus, too expensive!) I’ve accorded this idea some validity. Apparently not! Caulfield says that he’s treading carefully or “the hate mail will flow” and I can understand. However, he quotes several studies that show “no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs” (UK Food Standards Agency, 2009), “no strong evidence indicates that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” (Stanford University, 2012) and “no good studies have directly demonstrated health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.” (Pediatrics journal, 2012). What about the idea of organic pesticides being less harmful to the environment? Not! “There is little or no evidence that these organic pesticides are less harmful for consumers or the environment. It is just assumed that they are based upon the naturalistic fallacy.” (Steven Novella, Evidence-Based Medicine). Caulfield also quotes another example from a University of Guelph study in 2010: “organic approved insecticides had a similar or even greater negative impact on several natural enemy species in lab studies, were more detrimental to biological control organisms in field experiments, and had higher [environmental impact] at field use rates.” So much for that! Another reason for purchasing organic produce, the “alternativism” of it, the rejection of so-called “Big Food”, the embrace of an anti-corporate choice – we’re all just fooling ourselves. Apparently many organic food brands are now owned by Kellogg’s and PepsiCo!
Second, an interesting, and, to be honest, kind of funny study explored the degree to which purchasing organic food impacted moral attitudes and altruistic behaviour. Given the degree to which organic food is marketed with moral overtones – organic brands have names such as Honest Team, Purity Life, Seeds of Change, Living Tree Community – the author was curious about whether organic food had an impact on how people behaved. The study came to the paradoxical conclusion that being exposed to organic food does not make individuals into caring, open-minded hippies. It makes people more self-righteous, judgmental and less altruistic. (pp. 55-56)
Oh my God! We use a lot of organic produce at our restaurants – our chefs like the idea and our clientele certainly do – so that means we’re responsible for people becoming less nice and open-minded! Gah! But I told a few people about organic food not providing health benefits and someone said, “No. I can’t believe that.” I think that is a very telling choice of words. Belief and faith vs. fact and evidence. Even provided with evidence, people will believe what they want!
Caulfield approaches every topic with curiosity and even tries Gwyneth’s cleanse. He concludes that most of the health-oriented activities celebrities practice, whether they claim it’s to purify themselves of toxins (nonsense), or to revitalize their adrenals (also nonsense), what it’s really all about is weight loss, because the pressure to be thin and to look young is unrelenting in their industry. So even while spouting about how healthy (read: thin and young) they strive to be, many celebrities participate in two behaviours that are scientifically proven to be both aging and disease causing: smoking and tanning. An astonishing number of celebrities smoke! Their publicists work hard to keep pictures of their clients smoking out of the media, but they do it, mostly to stay thin. Amazing. So they’re drinking water like crazy (this isn’t necessary), rinsing out their colons, consuming enormous quantities of supplements (actually this is dangerous too), eating organic produce, “juicing”, doing cleansing diets, all of which has no scientific support, but they’re smoking, of which the World Health Organization says, “Tobacco kills up to half its users.” It’s particularly rich that Gwyneth Paltrow, who has established herself as a proponent of and adjudicator of the healthy lifestyle, smokes and admits it. She’s quoted as referring to smoking as “just the right amount of naughty”. Good quality health advice! I love the idea of people who make extravagant claims about “toxins” actively ingesting cigarette smoke.
How about tanning? Caulfield has another Gwyneth quote, almost as silly as the smoking one: “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I think we should all get sun and fresh air… I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.” If I didn’t know better, I’d love this, because I love getting a tan. But I know it’s bad for me and I’m trying to avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. And I certainly don’t tell people that it’s a good thing to do! It’s also incredibly silly to opine that anything natural can’t hurt you. Belladonna, arsenic, cyanide – all deadly poisons, all natural! Tsunami are natural too! Want to go hang out and experience one?
Sorry! The Rise of Naturalism really gets me going sometimes. Rousseau and Thoreau and millions of hippies have a lot to answer for. That’s another post.
Something that surprised me was the news that taking vitamins and supplements is futile. Caulfield quotes research that shows that there is no benefit to taking supplements, that Vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds, that supplementing some vitamins such as A and E “may actually increase the risk of certain cancers.” When I feel a cold coming on I start taking Emergen-C and I imagine it helps. But it could be the placebo effect. I do know that too much Vitamin C isn’t good for you as it can cause kidney stones if you overdo it but I thought that a little Emergen-C would help a cold. Maybe not! Not only that, but check this out:
A 2013 study from the University of Guelph, for example, did a blind study of commercially available supplements and found that “most of the herbal products were of low quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.” Remarkably, they found some product substitution – the use of another, unlabelled herb in place of the main ingredient – in products of 83 percent of the companies tested. In other words, only 17 percent of the companies were providing products that matched what the label said. This is, of course, both dangerous and unethical. It should not be forgotten that the massive supplement and vitamin industry, worth, by some estimates, approximately $60 billion worldwide, is about profits and moving product. Because of the bucks to be made, many pharmaceutical companies have recently acquired companies that produce supplements. Since it is not a tightly regulate industry, this situation should surprise no one. (pp. 48-49)
It surprised me! I totally believed that if you buy a bottle of raspberry ketones, it should contain raspberry ketones. (Yeah, I know they’re useless.)
Another widely held belief that Caulfield blows apart is the notion that it’s healthier to live in the country than the city. Again, no! Rural dwellers have higher rates of cancers, depression, heart disease, and pretty much every other ill humans can suffer, than urban dwellers. Even though we picture cities as smoggy dust holes and envision the country as clean and pristine, there is scientific evidence that shows we’re better off in the smoggy dust holes. This is one of those scientific studies that I can’t refute, but it feels wrong. It doesn’t “make sense” to me. I love going to Vancouver Island because the air does feel cleaner! Maybe if you’re just there on vacation it feels invigorating, but if you live there your health suffers? The studies observe that there are socioeconomic factors as well, but that even urban poor are better off than rural poor. It goes against our notions, but facts are facts.
Caulfield undergoes a Gwyneth cleanse but has various bodily products (blood, feces, etc.) tested both before and after the cleanse. The result? No change! The idea of detoxifying is unscientific and also super silly. Here’s another quote!
The idea of detoxing is faulty in so many levels that it borders on the absurd. First, the human body has organs, including the kidneys, liver, skin and colon, that take care of the detoxification process. When you pee, you are detoxifying. Toxins don’t build up waiting to be cleansed by supplements and special foods…As summarized in a 2005 academic article titled “Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises,” “These approaches are contrary to scientific consensus and medical evidence and are not consistent with the principle that diets should reflect balance, moderation, and variety.” (pp. 25-26)
Caulfield speculates that the appeal of cleanses lies in the masochism of punishing your body in this fashion. “Cleanses are a form of self-flagellation.” (p. 43) Your average Westerner is accustomed to a certain level of self-indulgence on a daily basis (I know I am), so an extreme diet is a form of atonement for this behaviour, and the reduction in calories may actually provide a break from regular overeating. So, possibly not all bad, and my dietician mother says, “A couple of weeks on one of these diets won’t kill you, but it’s not a long-term strategy for weight loss.”
While there were sections that validated things I felt I already knew – juicing is silly, also cleansing and colonic irrigation – there were sections that made me distinctly uncomfortable. For instance, the aforementioned tanning piece. I also squirmed through the section on the beauty industry. Basically, all the claims made for various products are false, especially if they use words like “radiant,” “rejuvenating,” and similar. I have a weakness for beauty products and if a product makes an interesting claim I usually plunk down my money for it. I love new product, especially makeup. It’s fun to play with. Mind you, I also get excited about a new set of pencil crayons. It’s all art, innit?
So here’s the thing: the rise of social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, makes people feel close to celebrities. It also gives celebrities a direct way of promoting their beliefs and opinions. Sometimes they benefit financially from such promotion and sometimes it’s just something to tweet and it feels good to make a pronouncement and have all your loyal following go Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah. And because people feel close to the celebrities they follow, they are susceptible to following their chosen celebrities’ advice. Caulfield shows that this is not sensible behaviour and that the advice itself is often not helpful and can often be dangerous.
In Part II I’m going to consider Caulfield’s thesis that because of media, both social and traditional, people not only emulate celebrity behaviour, but they also seem to consider a celebrity lifestyle an accessible and realistic goal and direct much of their energy and resources into achieving this goal, despite clear and obvious evidence that the success rate of this kind of endeavour is not high. Less than 1%, in fact! Yes, we will talk about hockey parents…