A registered dietician nutritionist shares some of the most common and harmful nutrition myths perpetuated by wellness culture that people should ditch ASAP.
Wellness is defined as the state or quality of being in good health. Wellness culture, on the other hand, is more complicated.
According to Christy Harrison, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of new book “The Wellness Trap,” wellness culture is more about the belief that our bodies cannot function or regulate well enough on their own and require products, diets or self-discipline to do so.
“Wellness culture posits certain behaviors as the path to achieving (moral goodness),” Harrison tells TODAY.com, adding that it promotes a standard for taking care of your body that can be unattainable — or even harmful.
Wellness culture has exploded in the last decade, in part thanks to social media, and is reaching an increasingly younger audience, Harrison says. But many of the beliefs circulating online, especially those around nutrition, have little to no evidence to back them up.
Here are some of the most pervasive nutrition myths that wellness culture has tricked us into believing, says Harrison, and why you should ditch them immediately.
We need to “detox” our bodies
The word detox — to rid the body of toxins or substances — has been co-opted by wellness culture, according to Harrison. Whether it’s from sugar, solid foods or social media, these so-called detoxes are touted as ways to cleanse the body and mind.
“It’s a very harmful wellness trend,” says Harrison, adding that detoxes usually involve extreme or restrictive behaviors. Juice cleanses, supplements and fasting are all marketed as ways detox the body, says Harrison, even though the body is designed to detoxify itself.
“Your liver and kidneys are great at removing toxins in your body without any intervention from you,” says Harrison. Extreme cleanses won’t make these organs work better, she adds, and they certainly aren’t a necessary maintenance measure.
“Wellness culture kind of views the liver and kidneys as being like filters in the sink that get clogged with gunk,” she continues. “A lot of the language is about needing to detox or clean them out to make them work properly.” But this simply isn’t true, she stresses.
“Unless you have liver or kidney disease or rare cases of acute poisoning … you don’t have to do anything for your liver and kidneys to function,” she adds.
Concerns about toxins pushed by wellness culture are often overblown and fraught with misunderstanding, says Harrison. “There’s this scaremongering about toxins in our food and our environment that we need to supposedly detox from regularly,” she says.
The juice cleanse “cure”
Juices have evolved from an easy way to drink your produce into a panacea that can heal or reverse a range of ailments, says Harrison. “There’s no good scientific evidence behind (juice cleanses), yet they’re still being touted as a cure-all,” she adds.
A red flag with any wellness trend, says Harrison, is if it’s promoted as as cure or a way to help with a wide array of diverse conditions.
Celery juice in particular remains a popular trend among wellness influencers and celebrities, she adds, with many claiming it provides benefits like rapid weight loss, improved gut health, higher energy levels and clearer skin.
“There’s probably a dozen chronic health conditions that celery juice is purported to help or even cure,” she explains, such as autoimmune diseases, skin conditions, allergies or digestive disorders. But the research supporting these assertions is profoundly lacking, she adds.
While fruits and vegetables provide the body with vitamins and nutrients, juicing them doesn’t enhance these benefits, TODAY.com previously reported. Juices can be a great addition to a diet alongside whole, nutritious foods, but drinking them as a substitute or a cleanse really isn’t worth it.
“Clean” eating is always better
Wellness culture has created an obsession with the cleanness and purity of what we put into our bodies, says Harrison. It’s even spilled over from food into personal care, beauty and home cleaning products.
The premise of clean eating is to focus on eating whole foods, avoid processed foods, cut back on sugars, limit saturated or trans fats, and limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine. It’s one thing to try to get more nutritious foods in your diet, but clean eating is often problematic dieting in disguise, Harrison says.
Some clean eating diets involve eliminating entire food groups (like grains or dairy, for example) and overly restrictive behaviors, says Harrison. What’s most worrisome, she adds, is how this can lead to disordered eating habits or full-blown orthorexia.
Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy eating and associated restrictive behaviors, according to the National Institutes of Health. It often involves a fixation with the cleanness of foods, TODAY.com previously reported.
Although it is not yet formally recognized as a mental disorder, the term orthorexia has been around since 1998, per the National Eating Disorders Association, and rates have been on the rise since.
“Research is still limited, but there’s some evidence showing that it’s quite high in health-conscious populations,” says Harrison. “For example, the overall prevalence of orthorexia in exercising populations was a staggering 51% according to a systematic review published this February.
All processed food is bad
The moralization of food — or labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad” — is one of the most harmful aspects of wellness culture, says Harrison. “There is no good versus bad food,” she explains. Some foods are more nutritious than others, but this binary fails to capture the full picture of a food’s nutritional value.
Assigning moral value to foods can also create guilt or shame around eating them, Harrison adds — phrases like “guilt-free” or “cheat meals” reinforce this.
“The demonization of processed foods and sugar are the biggest ones,” says Harrison. “It makes people feel like if they eat any of those foods, that they’re going to have immediate health consequences or they’re poisoning themselves.” Not only is this a myth, she adds, it can lead to disordered eating tendencies.
Processed foods are those that have undergone some processing from their natural state, which includes anything from candy and cookies to tinned fish or canned vegetables, TODAY.com reported previously. One step up from these are ultra-processed foods, which have undergone extensive transformation and have been linked to increase risk of certain cancers.
Harrison acknowledges that while research suggests eating too much processed food or sugar can be associated with poor health outcomes, she doesn’t believe it warrants the level of fear-mongering around certain foods pushed by many in the wellness industry.
“It’s not like the people having the best health outcomes in those studies are always eating zero sugar or zero processed foods,” says Harrison. Moderation is key — the occasional bag of chips or candy bar is no reason to fret.
There’s a supplement for that
No matter your ailment, you can find probably a supplement somewhere claiming to fix it. Wellness culture often pushes the idea that taking vitamins and dietary supplements is a more “natural” solution to attain good health, according to Harrison.
However, the benefits of dietary supplements for the general population have been widely contested. And research continues to show the vitamin pills and gummies advertised to keep us healthy might not do much at all, TODAY.com previously reported.
In addition, supplements can be harmful for a number of reasons, says Harrison. They can come with unpleasant side effects and even health risks in high doses. Another downside is that the supplement industry in the United States is largely unregulated, she adds.
Vitamins and dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as foods, not drugs. The FDA does not approve the safety or effectiveness of supplements, nor the accuracy of their labels, before they are sold to the public, TODAY.com previously reported.
Harrison explains that supplement manufactures aren’t allow to claim that their products cure or heal diseases, but they can make vaguer statements, for example that they “boost energy” or provide “immune support.”
“It’s scary because there’s no one really looking out for us in terms of what goes into supplements before they go to market,” says Harrison.