The Wild West of Wellness
TikTok is the newest search engine, with hundreds of relevant videos appearing before our very eyes after one search. But it’s a blessing and a curse when it comes to finding trustworthy information in the wellness world.
When we are looking for advice under the umbrella of wellness such as “how to lose weight” or “supplements,” we are met with a mix of both false and well-researched narratives in digital form, and we may not be able to spot the difference between them.
“You have people who are looking for whether it’s diet tips or workout advice [on TikTok],” Dr. Ursula Gorham, a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland and the director of the master of library and information science program, said. “What you may have is people sharing misinformation, and not having ill intent or anything, but just being uninformed and not being an expert. But other people are then seeing what they’re saying.”
From drinking straight olive oil to ingesting a green powder to ease bloating, wellness methods are accompanied by a conventionally attractive individual and packaged in eye-catching hues or inviting fonts just enough to get your attention for the duration of a TikTok or an Instagram reel.
Bloom Nutrition, for example, is everywhere. The company claims its Greens & Superfoods powder can be taken daily and “balance gut health, boost energy and soothe uncomfortable bloat.” I went to the website for more information but found that the Food and Drug Administration had not evaluated the powder’s ingredient label or claims.
Alex Raymond, a certified eating disorder specialist and co-owner of College Park private practice, Courage to Nourish, said although there are times when supplements such as iron are necessary for certain deficiencies, checking with your doctor, doing your research and purchasing them from a reputable source is important.
“It’s important to ask yourself, ‘What is this person trying to sell?’ Again, are they trying to sell this quick fix like — ‘This is going to make me feel better instantly’ — nothing can do that,” she said.
Raymond added that bloating is a completely normal bodily response to digestion.
“Once you put food in your belly, there is going to be a sensation of bloating,” she emphasized. “If we’re constantly thinking about it, then we’re going to be more aware of the bloat and that might cause anxiety because we think it’s not normal … If you’re just going about your life and living your day-to-day and not really thinking about your stomach or bloating, then you’re probably not really going to notice it.”
If you are experiencing pain with bloating or irregular bowel movements, however, she advises talking to a physician.
Lack of research seems to be the case with other wellness thingamabobs I’ve encountered, such as adaptogens.
Adaptogens are natural substances you may have heard of such as ashwagandha and maca. I originally heard about these plants from the Sea Moss Girlies podcast and got curious — and also skeptical. The blanket claim is that adaptogens help your body adapt to various forms of stress, which is as specific as it gets.
And again, studies to back up the effective science behind these herbal supplements are scarce.
On a potentially more harmful scale, some have experienced positive results from “detoxification programs,” however the number of quality studies that exist is lackluster, according to the National Institute of Health.
When I hear the word “detox,” what comes to mind is Mindy Kaling’s character in The Office who goes on a liquid cleanse consisting of lemon juice, water, pepper, cayenne and maple syrup for every meal to lose weight. She faints several scenes later as a result.
Juices and teas that may pop up on social feeds also come to mind when I think of the commodification of a detox — the job organs such as your liver do for free.
In reality, the “detoxing” properties of these products will most likely make you pee — because they’re liquids. Or poop — because they can also contain laxatives. While not all detox products are harmful, excessive use of laxatives can cause dehydration, constipation, organ damage and more.
When wellness products are advertised, it can also be hard to shy away from the visual aid of before and after photos. The goal can be to lose weight and feel good, but the transformation to skinny shown in the after photo also appears to be the goal. Experts say being skinny and being healthy are not the same.
“The communication is eating as little as possible, moving as much as possible, making yourself as small as possible. And I think that we’re constantly getting that message all the time, in lots of ways that we’re not conscious of,” Cybele Hirschhorn, a behavioral health therapist at the University Health Center, said.
TikTok’s famous algorithm could mean an interaction with a post potentially alters your “For You” page — a mechanism that isn’t even unique to TikTok but something Hirschhorn said is “quite pervasive” as someone who has experienced this on social media herself.
To combat this, Hirschhorn has her clients sift through who they’re following and analyze whether they’re actually helpful influences in regard to their relationship with health.
“There can be a lot of value in curating your own content to be the kind of things that you’re wanting to see and feel supportive of your relationship with food and your body and exercise and all that,” she said.
Raymond also advises that in the overwhelming digital world, it’s best to be wary of any wellness content you come across online.
“[Social media] is really good at giving little snippets of advice and that’s kind of the point, right? To pull you in … but it’s not really individualized advice, “ she explained. “What works for one person might not work for someone else and even what works for one person one day might not work the next day.”