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Why do we believe rubbish online advice?

21 August 2015

1:06 PM

21 August 2015

1:06 PM

Have you been duped by the cult of clean eating? In this week’s Spectator, Lara Prendergast and I delve into the murky world of ‘clean’ diets and Instagram goddesses. These diets are often based on a noble desire to eat more fruit and vegetables and cut out processed food. But they also involve a lot of pseudoscience and quackery, including warnings about certain foods that are just plain wrong.

Take this paragraph from the Hemsley sisters’ website:

‘Gluten is a sticky, water-soluble protein found in many grains (including wheat, rye, spelt and barley). It breaks down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your bloodstream, which is referred to as ‘leaky gut syndrome’. This can cause allergies, digestive disturbances or autoimmune problems. Grains like corn, rice and oats have similar protein composites to gluten that can also be problematic over time.’

At least the Hemsleys have some notion of what gluten is, which many diet bloggers don’t, other than that it is In Some Undefinable Way Bad. But their claim that it ‘breaks down the microvilli in your small intestine’ and causes ‘leaky gut syndrome’ is just untrue. Gluten damages your intestinal linings only if you are one of the 1 per cent of the population diagnosed with Coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition where the body mistakes gluten for a threatening substance and attacks it, damaging the intestines in the process. Even in this situation, it is unlikely a patient will need treatment for a ‘leaky bowel’.

Gluten is also a problem for a slightly larger group of people who suffer from a condition known as non-coeliac gluten hypersensitivity, which causes similar gut symptoms such as abdominal pains, weight loss, diarrhoea, fatigue and bloating but does not involve the immune system. This condition has only recently been recognised, but it still means that the overwhelming majority of the population – around 90 per cent – have no problem eating gluten. In some countries, gluten is eaten on its own in dishes as without widespread gut problems.


So why do so many ‘clean’ cooks and bloggers advocate cutting out gluten? Madeleine Shaw told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman that everyone should give up wheat ‘just to see how they feel’. Freeman’s interviews with Shaw and other ‘wellness’ gurus are an excellent insight into why they dispense advice that seems so at odds with official NHS guidance and the advice offered by the British Dietetic Association: these bloggers, while well-meaning and often pleasant, are not qualified to advise on diets, health, and intestinal linings.

Even if you don’t think paleo chia hot cross buns are worth making, or indeed that courgette really is anything like pasta, then you may have started to suspect gluten, and worry about your consumption of carbohydrates. But if these bloggers aren’t worth taking too seriously on nutritional advice, why do so many people believe and follow them?

The answer lies in a curious willingness to accept information online as being true. We see it in politics, where false ‘memes’ spread on social media. They often tap into a suspicion that those in power are lying to us or loafing about at taxpayers’ expense. This Demos report on trust and the internet makes fascinating reading on why people believe things online.

It is also in the personal touch that wellness bloggers offer. They have a story, a photograph, and a conversational way of advising people that makes them seem like the word-of-mouth recommendation that we trust offline.

Dr Adam Fox is a consultant paediatric allergist at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital, and sees many parents who are worried about allergies and intolerances that they have diagnosed in their children. He doesn’t blame parents for worrying about their children’s health: that is quite natural. Indeed, he worries that many turn to the internet because they receive inadequate advice from their GPs, and the advice they find on the internet has a personal touch and a confident tone that reassures them more.

Fox also noticed when he watched a homeopath at work that he could learn something from the way this similarly quackish industry works. ‘What I saw, aside from all the bad science, was an absolute masterclass in how to carry out a consultation,’ he says. He went away determined to use some of the interpersonal skills that the homeopath deployed with his own patients and their families in order to reassure them further and stop them resorting to doctor internet for help.

Well-researched advice online is rarely accompanied by a glowing photograph of a beautiful blogger and an artfully arranged salad. The British Dietetic Association has a plethora of fact sheets about a balanced and healthy diet, but they just don’t look as appealing and personal as their less scientific rivals. We certainly need to be more critical in the way we digest online material, but perhaps qualified health practitioners also need to work out a way of engaging better with those who are anxiously hunting for answers about their health, even if they don’t go quite so far as to set up an Instagram account.


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