What do Sarah Stevenson (aka Sarah’s Day), Laura Henshaw and Steph Claire Smith from Keep it Cleaner and Georgie Stevenson have in common? Well…they have made some seriously big bucks from blending up a protein smoothie and posting mirror selfies of their tanned and toned abs on instagram. These ‘fitness bloggers’ have hundreds of thousands of followers and promote their super successful business ventures that provide the tips and tricks on how they achieve the perfect body. However, their success leaves vulnerable Aussies open to harmful medical fictions and health myths.
At a glance, it all seems innocent. YouTube and Instagram influencers casually posting ‘what I eat in a day’ or ‘a day on my plate’ with footage of their food choices or supplement recommendations seems harmless. Many of them offer quick disclaimers about the fact they are not nutritionists but they fail to recognise the negative impact these videos can have.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love watching these videos and pretending like I will make their carb-free cauliflower pizza or refined sugar and gluten-free pumpkin brownies (but let’s be real, I’m eating Maccas while watching). Ther’s nothing wrong with watching these fun, fit and strong women (and men) for inspo, but what is wrong is thinking that they are qualified to give advice.
Sarah’s Day, or as she refers to herself – ‘the holistic health princess’ (wait… are lip fillers holistic these days?) boasts over 730k subscribers on YouTube, and the healthy lifestyle guru has created a massive empire for herself, with various sponsorships and collaborations (including a podcast, snacks, activewear and two fitness Ebooks).
Sarah’s recent controversy occurred when she informed her young audience that she apparently ‘cured’ her cervical dysplasia – a condition that can lead to cervical cancer if untreated. Instead of following her gynaecologist’s plan to have surgery, she begged to have the opportunity to cure herself by potentially changing her diet. On 25 July 2018, the health guru published a video on her YouTube, announcing that she had healed herself naturally, and giving advice on how to achieve this. The video was filled with congratulatory comments but there were also concerns about the language used and the misleading information Sarah was feeding her viewers. This ‘natural route’ of healing serious medical issues can have necessarily awful results. Jessica Ainscough passed away at just 22 after deciding to heal her cancer naturally.
While it’s great that Sarah is no longer at risk, the Cancer Council raised major concerns for the young women watching her video and urged that her ‘food is thy medicine’ mentality is not the reality for many patients. A study by the International Journal of Proteomics found that 38% of women with CIN3 will regress naturally (and not because of eating garlic). There is no evidence that Sarah’s cocktail of vitamins, supplements, organic food and positive vibes downgraded her high-risk precancerous cells to low risk. Dr Brad McKay from East Sydney Doctors said “it’s narcissistic to believe that you can heal your cervix with positive thoughts and green smoothies.”
While there is undoubtedly a wealth of reputable, peer-reviewed health information out there, it is terrifying how many young people don’t know how to tell the difference between the opinions of an MD and a fitness blogger. Studies show that adolescents typically look online to YouTube or social media (free services) for advice about popular health trends and fad diets and most of the time, the information is biased, incorrect, lacks scientific evidence and is misleading. Most people seriously lack the skills to understand and critique the relevance and trustworthiness of the information they are given – often relying on the first piece of information sourced. This is particularly disturbing because most people are not qualified to give this advice.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with showing others how you eat and exercise online -many doctors and qualified dieticians (aka actually tertiary educated people) do it all the time and it can be helpful and inspiring. The issue with random YouTubers doing it is the context within which it’s done. Influencers can easily give advice without even thinking about the fact that they aren’t qualified to have conversations about food, diet and health, and without taking into account that just because something works for them, that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
These people are selling themselves as experts and why do we believe them?
Is it just because they have hot bods?
There are countless people online even offering advice about how to get over eating disorders and anxiety It is completely inappropriate and unregulated, and runs the risk of doing more harm than good. Influencers have an undeniable responsibility to their audiences, and the lack of accountability (that government agencies, registered dietitians and doctors legally work under) means that they can make amazing claims with absolutely no backing.
So let’s think about this.
Would you go to a doctor who is halfway through their degree and take advice from them? Probably not, right? So why are you taking advice from online ‘health gurus’ who have no qualifications in fitness or health? You have to start putting it together – are you really going to take advice from someone who only uses ‘natural fake tan’ and makeup made from superfoods yet has fake boobs and lip fillers?
While information from YouTube and social media seems relatable and compelling, it is SO SO SO important to fact-check that information against reputable sources, or it can be dangerous to your health. Most influencers are paid for the products they put on their social media. If they’re promoting a supplement or vitamin, it is probably because they are receiving a lot of money from a referral code or sponsorship deal… this makes them even less trustworthy because they might not even like the product! Your health and wellbeing is the most important thing so take it seriously and talk to the professionals, NOT influencers.
Remember: having abs doesn’t make someone an expert.