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Real Talk: Is the Wellness Industry a Total Scam?

On the surface it seems like the concept of wellness is a positive, health-minded movement focused on self-improvement. It seems like we should be empowered by wellness. After all, being healthy is all the rage these days. Everywhere you look women are walking around in head-to-toe yoga gear, whether they are going to workout or not. Focusing on wellness as a guiding principle can only lead to good things — to a better body, a healthier state of being, a more balanced and confident self. Eating nothing but Tuscan kale will surely lead to a more toned tummy, and swearing off carbs has to improve our digestion and our weight, right? Well, that depends on how you define wellness, and it depends on how much truth there is behind the lies the wellness industry tells us.

For many of us, we so badly want to make a change in our lives that we follow the wellness trends blindly, hoping that they deliver the results we desire. But it doesn’t always work out that way. More often than not, wellness practices don’t actually lead to the fit, slim, healthy figure they claim; instead, they can lead to nothing more than damage to our self-esteem and our bodies. While diets trends might present themselves as solutions to all your issues, from body issues to stress, fatigue and even libido, it turns out that the wellness industry might be less of a solution and more of a scam. And people are starting to take notice.

Think about the last fad diet you tried. Did you test out intermittent fasting? (Or what some of us working moms call “not having enough time to eat breakfast.”) Did the slow carb diet or the Whole 30 tempt you to get on board? Maybe the idea of a juice cleanse was particularly intriguing to you, because who doesn’t love a good smoothie. Whatever wellness trend you tried, we’re willing to bet that you dove in somewhat unprepared, simply because it seemed promising and positive. After all, it is called wellness. The name itself implies that these practices want you to be well. They want you to look and feel your best. But experts are starting to wonder if these wellness trends are actually dangerous diets in disguise, and if the wellness industry is doing nothing more than spreading lies and unrealistic goals of what a healthy body should be.

A History of Wellness

When did this obsession with “wellness” even begin? Our parents did not grow up thinking about their belly bulge or how to reduce bloating. Our grandparents did not consider cutting carbs or skipping meals in an effort to be more “well.” For crying out loud they smoked a pack a day and baked in the sun for hours with zero protection and zero worries. If our ancestors heard that we were voluntarily consuming activated charcoal as a way to detoxify our bodies, they would roll their eyes or possibly give us a swift smack across the head. Even saying the words out loud sound absurd. And yet we do it. We’re obsessed with wellness. So when did this whole trend begin?

It’s hard to say exactly when the wellness boom hit, especially since some version of wellness has been around for hundreds of years. But the modern take on wellness, and a booming business that has taken off, as a result, has become increasingly popular and successful in the past 10 years. Call it sometime around when social media took off and people’s lives were on full display for the world to see — with a filter of course.

As more and more people became not only aware of but also consumed by the health and fitness routines of others, the wellness industry started to really flourish. While diets are not a new trend, nor are workouts (remember Jane Fonda’s epic workout videos of the 80s or Susan Sommer’s infamous Thigh-master?), the obsession with wellness only increased once everyday people and celebrities alike had the opportunity to flaunt their bodies (however photoshopped they may be) and their wellness routines online for millions of fans to gawk.

The Global Wellness Business is Booming

Now, the global wellness industry is taking over and knocking out traditional pharmaceutical and medical industries in the process. The wellness industry is worth an estimated 4.2 trillion dollars according to a 2017 report from the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit that is considered the leading global research and educational resource for the global wellness industry. The report shows that the wellness market is growing at a historic rate: nearly twice as fast as the global economy. That 4.2 trillion valuation is higher than ever before, and it’s also more than the pharmaceutical industry, which is worth about 1 trillion dollars, and the diet industry, valued in the tens of billions.

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Why has the wellness industry increased so rapidly and so significantly in the past few years? According to Katherine Johnston, a senior research fellow at the Global Wellness Institute, it’s because our contact with wellness is now a more all-encompassing and a more regular part of our daily life. “Once upon a time, our contact with wellness was occasional: we went to the gym or got a massage. But this is changing fast: a wellness mindset is starting to permeate the global consumer consciousness, affecting people’s daily decision-making – whether food purchases, a focus on mental wellness and reducing stress, incorporating movement into daily life, environmental consciousness, or their yearning for connection and happiness.” 

While that increased desire to focus on our well-being, alongside the increased presence of wellness on social media, has caused several wellness trends, and the idea of wellness overall, to spread fast and furiously, the issue is that many of these wellness claims do not have scientific proof of true expert input to support them. Which is where wellness trends fall short, or even cause damage to those who swear by them.

What Exactly Does Wellness Mean?

The first thing we need to clear up because it is confusing to many (guilty), is that wellness and health are not the same thing. Wellness is not the same as medicine either. Think of medicine as a way to use science to reduce your risk of illness, to prevent disease and to increase longevity. Medicine supports your health, and your health is what keeps you alive. Wellness is different. A lot of people assume that wellness is about maintaining a balanced state of health, including your mind, body and spirit. Wellness looks at your whole being, not just your physical health on a cellular level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A 360 approach to improving how you feel is always a good idea. 

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, wellness is defined as “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.” So, the literal definition of wellness is not the problem. The issue occurs when wellness is not about balance or achieving a sense of wholeness and health, but about promoting unrealistic or unhealthy ideals of what it means to feel good and look good — it’s selling an idea of health that is actually quite unhealthy.  

There are plenty of wellness buzzwords and phrases that trigger imagery of self-improvement and life-changing results. Detox, clean eating, mindfulness, meditation, anti-inflammatory, and cleanse are just a handful of words that instantly make you feel like you’re doing something good for your body. But are you really? Is there any scientific proof or physician support to show that intermittent fasting (aka skipping meals for certain hours of the day) can help you lose weight in a healthy, lasting way? Are there any studies to prove that activated charcoal can remove toxins from your body? 

This is where wellness can be dangerous. When, as a consumer, you blindly follow whatever trends, mildly researched advice and confusing facts you hear in the name of being “well,” things can get hazardous. It can get risky when you adopt new habits in an effort to achieve a better body or a more balanced state of being, but the habits you are practicing aren’t proven to do any good at all, they are just some Instagram influencer’s latest gig to promote. 

According to Jessica Knoll, author of the novels Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favorite Sister in a piece for the NY Times, wellness influencers fail to really protect our well-being. “If these wellness influencers really cared about health, they might tell you that yo-yo dieting in women may increase their risk for heart disease, according to a recent preliminary study presented to the American Heart Association.” She continues to suggest, “they might also promote behaviors that increase community and connection, like going out to a meal with a friend or joining a book club. These activities are sustainable and have been scientifically linked to improved health, yet are often at odds with the solitary, draining work of trying to micromanage every bite of food that goes into your mouth.” 

Wellness Isn’t All Bad

We’re not suggesting that all wellness trends are bad, or that you shouldn’t take care of your body. Clearly any movement that supports self-love and self-care and promotes health and longevity is worth paying attention to. We all want to live long, happy, fulfilled lives, and if we can be comfortable in our own skin and confident in our bodies at the same time, that’s gravy. But does the wellness industry really promote that self-confidence, or is more of a backhanded compliment or a self-deprecating message in disguise? 

Think about who is really embracing this wellness trend; the vast majority of people supporting the 4.2 trillion dollar industry are affluent, white, privileged, able-bodied women. Many of them are Millennials. It is a first-world problem if we’ve ever seen one. Wellness is targeting a demographic and a generation of people who already know they are going to have the food, water, and essentials they need to survive, so now they are dedicating everything they have to try and meet unrealistic beauty standards that promote thinness above all else. Wellness is abusing the privilege and the wealth of an audience obsessed with looking and feeling better.

Wellness is the diet industry behind a mask of self-care. And yet, many of us still fall for the fallacy because we want to believe it will help us be better, and we want to believe that it’s promoting good health. We want to believe that there are steps we can take to feel better than we did yesterday, to look better than we did last year, and in many cases, to look like the celebrities and models we see on social media who swear by the latest diet trend or healthy living fad.  

You have to give the wellness brands credit where credit is due — they have marketed the crap out of their trends and they have flawlessly designed an industry that taps into a cultural desire to change our bodies. But if there is no truth behind the wellness claims, and no concrete science to make those trends effective, then they’ll never deliver on their healthy promises, and we’ll all be right back where we started, only lacking the hundreds/thousands of dollars we spent on a myth.

Be Healthy, Be Well, But Be Cautious

At the end of the day, how we treat our bodies and how we operate in our daily lives is within our own control. No one can tell us how to eat or when to work out or how to protect our health if it’s not something we truly believe or truly want to adopt. Wellness isn’t always bad. It’s not always a lie, but it’s also not always the truth, and that’s where we all need to take ownership.

If we buy into this idea that a natural solution or a fad diet is making us feel better or protecting our health, then we might be inclined to ignore symptoms that indicate a larger medical issue. We might not go to regular doctor’s appointments because we feel so good, but in reality, there is an illness that is not being addressed. If we only practice alternative medicine or we swear by wellness activities and eating routines that promise to help us reduce bloat or lose weight or sleep better, then we might not be getting the nutrients we need for a lifetime of health, not just short-term feeling good.   

If we can learn anything from this explosion of the wellness industry, it’s that people are looking for natural, approachable ways to take care of themselves. They are looking for healers and for answers. They are looking for small steps they can take to better their bodies and they are looking for tangible actions that might make a difference in how they look and feel. All of that is good; those people are turning to wellness for the right reasons. And even people who aren’t necessarily approaching wellness with the “right” intentions (perhaps they are coming from a more superficial place) are still looking for something to fill a void in their overall health regimen. But sadly, the wellness world as we know it today might be more of a sham than a solution to meet those needs.

The medical industry should take note — there is clearly a need for doctors and medical professionals to provide researched, tested and supported advice on how to be healthier. Women in particular, who are constantly neglected in terms of their healthcare needs, are desperate for answers, tips, treatments and healthy habits that can help them live longer, happier, healthier lives. What they don’t need is to buy a $500 dietary supplement that doesn’t work.

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