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Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has offered health suggestions that are scientifically ludicrous. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has offered health suggestions that are scientifically ludicrous. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Timothy Caulfield

Lifestyle trends: Hoping for a celebrity-free 2016? Dream on Add to ...

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow, and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash .

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Bold New Year’s prediction No. 1: In 2016, there will be a new celebrity-endorsed health trend.

Bold prediction No. 2: It won’t work.

Bold prediction No. 3: It will be popular, anyway.

As part of an ongoing research project, I have spent the past few years immersed in the world of celebrity health and lifestyle advice. It has been a strange, head-shaking experience. And if one thing has become as crystal-clear as Daniel Craig’s piercing blue eyes, it is that it is a world almost completely devoid of science and critical reflection.

Am I being too harsh? In the past year alone, Gwyneth Paltrow, my favourite purveyor of pseudoscientific bunk, has suggested that women should steam their vaginas, that infrared saunas are a good way to treat the flu, that we should all get regular colonics and that wearing a bra increases your risk of getting breast cancer. Not only are all of these suggestions scientifically ludicrous, they are potentially harmful.

Of course, many other celebrities offered science-free suggestions about how we should live. Actress Shailene Woodley told us to eat clay. Michael Douglas said to go gluten-free. Katy Perry said to consume megadoses of supplements. I could go on and on.

Despite what you may think, this celebrity pontificating can have a significant impact on public health. It isn’t just harmless tabloid filler. The bunk matters. Studies have consistently shown that celebrity culture can influence our health-related behaviour and how we think about ourselves physically, even if we don’t realize it is having this effect. It can influence the utilization of health-care resources (such as screening and testing behaviour), our less-than-healthy habits (smoking, drinking, tanning) and, even, how we want our bodies to appear.

Consider cosmetic surgery. Research has shown that demand (and, to be clear, this means people wanting to permanently alter their bodies) is based on norms created almost entirely by celebrity culture. Kate Middleton’s nose. Hugh Jackman’s jaw line. Jennifer Aniston’s arms. Until recently, butt enlargement was a relatively rare procedure. Now it is one of the fastest-growing forms of cosmetic surgery. This surge in popularity is due to just one data point: Kim Kardashian’s gluteus maximus. (Okay, to be fair, Jennifer Lopez deserves a portion of credit, too.)

Celebrity culture also has an impact on less extreme health behaviours. Many of the most popular 2015 evidence-free health trends – detoxing, juicing and going gluten-free – would not have become billion-dollar industries without celebrity endorsements.

Is there any celebrity advice worth following? Is Ms. Paltrow really wrong about absolutely everything?

Here’s the thing, even when a famous person’s advice is solid – say, Ms. Paltrow telling us to eat real food and exercise – it is projected through the distorting lens of celebrity. This world view invites women, either explicitly or implicitly, to consider the possibility that they, too, can look fabulous (read: thin) in a Stella McCartney bikini while frolicking on the white sands of St. Barts. Worse, the message is that obtaining a body worthy of Instagram-able bikini-frolicking should be the ultimate goal.

For guys, the appearance-focused messaging has become almost as unrelenting. And it can be summed up in two words: sexy abs! This aesthetics-dominant theme is everywhere in popular culture. A recent study of women’s magazines, for example, found that health content was, in general, framed as not about health, but rather about appearance. The authors note that “fitness in women’s magazines is being framed as thinness” and, as a result, readers are “consistently exposed to an unrealistic, unattainable portrayals” that conflict with the goal of good health.

But perhaps being bombarded by images of celebrity perfection is inspiring? Perhaps seeing a flab-free Channing Tatum (damn him!) will nudge me to the gym? That’s good, right?

Not really. For one thing, when it comes to diet and exercise, studies show that motivation matters. If you are focusing on the appearance goals pushed by the celebrity universe, you are less likely to succeed and more likely to give up. Staying motivated is tough. And, in this regard, the doomed-to-fail quick-fix strategies and unrealistic aesthetic goals associated with celebrity health and fitness advice will likely do more harm than good.

Another recent study found the reason you exercise may have an impact on your compensation eating – how much you eat after your workout. If the motivation for your exercise is to get thin and look good, as opposed to health and enjoyment, you are, paradoxically, likely to eat more.

Let’s try to make 2016 the year of the celebrity-free lifestyle trend. Let’s keep it evidence-based and ridiculously simple. Don’t smoke. Drink in moderation. Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Get some real exercise. Stand regularly. Sleep. That’s it.

I realize this is far from a realistic New Year’s wish. We live in a world where Ms. Perry has 80 million Twitter followers. This is 77 million more than the World Health Organization. Still, New Year’s is a time to dream. So, why not dream big?

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