Pixie is the plant-based/veggie food and lifestyle blogger, scientist (BSc), nutritionist (MSc), speaker, and content creator behind Plantbased-Pixie.com. Pixie will be hosting a panel discussion on ‘Nutrition and Nutribollocks’ at the HBC Health and Blogging Summit on 15th April. Get your tickets here.
We caught up with Pixie to discuss some of the issues surrounding nutrition in the wellness industry.
Pseudoscience can be harmful. But what exactly is it?
“Pseudoscience is essentially anything that is not founded on evidence-based science”, explains Pixie. “These are ideas that are presented as science, often using scientific jargon, and can incorrectly be mistaken for science. It can be harmful, for example, when effective treatments are shunned in favour of alternative approaches, or can lead to malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies if following a highly restrictive diet not based on evidence.”
With so much pseudoscience out there, it can be difficult to know what to trust. So what can we do to foolproof ourselves against incorrect information?
“Just because someone has been eating food their whole life doesn’t make them an expert in nutrition. Just because someone goes to the gym doesn’t make them a personal trainer. And just because someone posts about these things on Instagram doesn’t make them qualified to talk about any of them.
“The easiest way to protect yourself from pseudoscience is to ask: is this person qualified to talk about this? Can they be considered an ‘expert’ in this field?”
Asking these questions will encourage us to realise that not everything we read online is fact. “This isn’t foolproof for sure, but it’s a good place to start. Qualifications matter!” says Pixie. Another important practise is to check the validity of nutritional claims on blogs/ media sources. Pixie advises to “firstly, check the writer’s qualifications: look for letters like RD, RNutr, ANutr, or BSc/MSc after their name. Secondly, check their sources of information. If they make claims and don’t back them up with proof, be sceptical. Thirdly, if you’re not sure, there are a great many registered nutritionists and dieticians on social media (especially Twitter) who are very friendly and would be more than happy to advise. I’m also always happy to verify anything!”
When it comes to experience-based claims, there can be truth and fact. However, “truth is highly individual and should never be assumed to apply to others. That’s where the danger lies. If you’re so sure something that works for you will also work for others then go design a study, test your hypothesis, and publish your results in a scientific journal. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.”
“Just because someone has been eating food their whole life doesn’t make them an expert in nutrition.”
Social media is one of the biggest enablers in the prolificacy of pseudoscience. As Pixie explains, “social media like Instagram is extremely visual, and you can’t reference your claims on Instagram, so you just have to take someone’s word for it. Social media also produces the illusion that followers = experience/qualifications (which is obviously untrue), as well as the illusion that by eating like someone we can look like them too. We feel a connection to a person because we see their face, their food, their workouts, and we think we can trust them, even if they’re preaching a steaming pile of BS.”
It’s so important for bloggers and influencers to make sure the advice they give out is accurate. There is a certain level of responsibility that comes with having a large social following. Pixie believes that “if you’re not qualified to talk about something, then don’t talk about it. It may seem harmless, but you could potentially put someone’s health at risk – and that’s completely your responsibility if it happens.”
“Bloggers and influencers need to be much more aware of the information and image they put out online.”
“Getting free stuff as a blogger may seem great, but every time you mention a product you’re associated with that brand, and you need to think really carefully about whether it’s the kind of brand you want people to think of when they think of you. Press releases from brands should never be taken as gospel. Most health brands make claims that are not approved by EU regulations and get away with it, partly because bloggers regurgitate this information without questioning it. Question everything. Ask for evidence. It’s your right and responsibility.
“If you really want to talk about a particular topic, and don’t feel fully qualified to talk about it, then get a quote from an expert who knows their stuff, or get them to check what you’ve written to make sure it’s accurate.”
Often, anecdotal evidence that involves interesting stories is listened to more than scientific research in the wellness industry. Pixie believes the reason we like anecdotes is “because they’re personal, and because often they’re interesting. Most of the time, they’re far more exotic and weird and interesting than the statements put out by Public Health England, for example.
“We don’t like boring statements like “Eat 5-a-day”, or “Eat a balanced diet”. We’re much more intrigued by stories about a friend’s cousin’s girlfriend who ate only bananas for a week and ‘cured her eczema’.”
Believing anecdotal evidence that is not backed by evidence can be dangerous for consumers: “If consumers are trusting anecdotes over scientific evidence, then clearly something isn’t right! The worst effect this could have is that it could lead to situations like Belle Gibson, where she told her story about how she ‘cured’ her cancer using food – a cancer it turns out she didn’t have at all. How many people shunned life-saving treatments like chemotherapy as a result of this? How many people has Belle Gibson indirectly led to their deaths? It’s a horrible thought, and obviously at the more extreme end, but it’s a powerful example of how an anecdote can have such dangerous consequences.”
So what are the biggest myths surrounding health and wellness?
“The most widespread myth seems to be the ‘eat like me look like me’ issue, which has led to a large number of celebrities writing recipe books with diet plans, and producing exercise DVDs, and has led to them being considered ‘experts’. It focuses entirely on aesthetics, when in fact health and nutrition is so much more than that, and completely takes important factors like genetics out of the equation.
“The other myth, which ties into the first one, is that there is some kind of ‘quick-fix’ when it comes to losing weight or being healthy. There really isn’t, but saying that doesn’t really sell books or increase TV ratings. If any of the fad diets or miracle cures out there actually worked then they wouldn’t keep coming up with more and more weird and wonderful ideas, and there wouldn’t even be a diet industry because there would be such a monopoly. But that’s not the case! And yet people keep searching on for something they haven’t tried before.”
Trends in the wellness industry come and go more often than buses, and we have all fallen victim to believing things that aren’t true. We asked Pixie to share the biggest thing she has changed her mind on since starting out as a food blogger:
“Personally, when I started blogging I made all the classic mistakes I now tell people to avoid. But I’m ok with that, because unlike a lot of bloggers, I freely admit to my mistakes and show how I’ve changed and why. I think that’s important, because by sweeping things under the carpet we fail to acknowledge that these mistakes are in fact mistakes.
“What I’ve changed my mind the most about is probably supplements. I used to be obsessed with taking all sorts of ‘superfood’ powders and believed I needed them to be healthy. I featured them heavily on my social media and blog. But rather than deleting the blog post, I’ve kept it up and now redirect people to a page that shows why my opinion has changed, and why the evidence says we don’t need these things at all. In fact, a lot of the claims these companies make about their products are either grossly exaggerated or entirely false.”
Saying this, there are many inspiring, educated and knowledgable figures in the wellness industry. Pixie is inspired by the integrity and ethic of Dr Laura Thomas. “[She] is amazing. We met last year and hit it off straight away, Not only is she a real expert in nutrition – she’s a registered nutritionist and has a PhD – but she gives out solid evidence-based advice, doesn’t let any personal diet preferences influence her objective work with clients, and is an all-round awesome person who doesn’t sell out.”
Don’t forget you can catch Pixie leading a panel discussion on Nutrition & Nutribollocks at the Health & Blogging Summit on 15th April.