The cult of wellness
The Australian Women's Weekly|May 2021
The “wellness” industry generates trillions of dollars but is it making any of us well, or just an unregulated, untested con?
GENEVIEVE GANNON

Morning sunlight fills a bright and airy bedroom as a mobile phone’s celestial alarm marks the start of the day. A hand reaches out to tap it off with manicured fingernails that are shiny and pink. Then a dewy-skinned Jennifer Aniston bounces out of bed and stretches in her gently rumpled, white linen robe, before padding downstairs for ‘breakfast’.

“Collagen supports our bodies from the inside out,” she says as she adds a hefty scoop of white powder to a pot of black coffee she has made from freshly ground beans. “When we feel supported from within, we feel our best.”

Jen does some yoga. Runs on her treadmill. Decisively strikes a line out of a script with a pencil while sitting on a big soft rain cloud of a sofa. She’s radiant, but relatable. Fit, but cerebral. She’s everything the wellness industry promises we can be, and all for $29 a month. (The brand behind the ad offers a subscription service.) It’s a lovely story, but there’s just one problem.

It doesn't give you anything you can't get from food, says pre-eminent nutritionist Rosemary Stanton.

“Collagen is just the latest supplement that is supposed to give you smooth skin and help your muscles and all the rest of it, and they sell it for huge prices. It doesn’t go down through your stomach into your intestines and get magically absorbed up into the wrinkles around your eyes. People have very little idea of digestion. They think things zoom to a particular part of the body.”

The collagen powder sales pitch goes like this: collagen provides our skin and connective tissue with its strength and elasticity. As we age, our body becomes less efficient at producing it. Adding powdered collagen to our food will replenish our stores of it, making us appear youthful and feel stronger.

Except it won’t, Dr Stanton says. She points to research by Laureate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Clare Collins, which found that what little evidence there is that collagen supplements are good for your skin is funded by the people who sell them.

“Amino acids needed to make collagen can be found in other foods containing protein,” Professor Collins wrote in The Conversation. “Rather than spending a lot of money on collagen supplements, spend it on healthy food. You will get better value in terms of your health and wellbeing in the long-term.”

But apples and broccoli are hard to monetise, and therein lies the paradox of the promise of wellness.

Dr Stanton gives a sigh of weary resignation. “It’s a bit like when people take antioxidant supplements. You have no idea what you’re taking. Which antioxidant is it? Is it one you don’t get enough of? Nobody has a clue. But if you say, ‘It’s got antioxidants’, it must be good … The research that’s done on antioxidants is all done on fruit flies.”

Dr Stanton has been busting pseudo-scientific health myths for more than five decades but the celebrity-driven, Insta-era wellness craze has turned a trickle of misinformation into an eruption of probiotic, activated, alkalised, rainbow-colored, well, … goop.

Crystal elixer

A crystal elixir is water that has been near crystals. The trend rests on the premise crystals have healing powers and by passing water through crystals, you can “revitalise” the water and absorb the crystal’s powers. Crystal water bottles retail for between $60 and $100 and, according to one manufacturer, work best after being charged under a moonlit sky. There’s not a lot of research on the power of crystals, but one often-quoted study from the University of London found any sensation they cause could be put down to the power of suggestion, or the placebo effect. Also of concern, healing crystals are mined in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where mineral extraction is linked to “severe human-rights violations and environmental harm,” The Guardian reported.

To be fair to Jen, she’s not alone in lending her reputation to strange and inscrutable health claims. Supermodel Miranda Kerr spruiks heart-shaped rose quartz discs that she says have beauty and healing benefits “such as clearing the complexion and preventing wrinkles”. Elle MacPherson has her own brand of elixirs and powdered boosters. And of course, the high priestess of self-care, Gwyneth Paltrow, has built a beige-coloured kingdom on the premise that a jade vagina egg will bring you spiritual renewal. Collagen martinis were a hot menu item at her 2018 Goop wellness summit, which acolytes paid upwards of $500 to attend. Ticket prices topped out at $4500. Wellness is big business.

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