Wellness Fads — An Introduction

As part of our series of blog posts on controversial issues in science, and the distinction between skepticism and denial in science, we present a series on “wellness fads.”  Following this introduction, we will upload a three-part series.  Each of those parts will focus on one individual who has achieved fame in this general area.  We will review various controversies surrounding specific health issues or medical ‘practitioners’ with whom these people are associated.  The three individuals that we have chosen are Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow, and Dr. Deepak Chopra.

First, we will review the general topic of ‘wellness,’ and explain our concerns as scientists regarding this field.  There are several impulses that motivate an interest in wellness.  The first of these involves a movement towards individual empowerment in matters of personal health.  The past two centuries have seen dramatic changes in the practice of medicine, and in our understanding of the scientific foundations of illness.  In the 18th century, before the advent of the germ theory of disease, medical procedures were often carried out by amateurs such as barbers and midwives.   Much medical “practice” was based on attempts to balance the “humors” (earth, air, water and fire) in the human body.  Great reliance was also placed on the supposed efficacy of various herbs and potions.

Modern medicine progressed along with our scientific understanding of disease, and with advances in chemistry and biology.  Today, there are many people who make positive contributions to the general area of wellness.  This includes researchers who utilize scientific advances in an effort to increase the health of the population; physicians and health professionals who improve the lives of their clients; and journalists who provide information on best health practices to the general public.

At the same time, there are less scrupulous individuals and companies who are motivated by the lure of big payoffs in the field of wellness.  One only has to peruse the Web to find deceptive or misleading products that promise consumers that these products will enable to help them lose weight, increase their libido or conquer disease.  This branch of the “wellness” industry will be the focus of these blog posts.

In the 19th century, the development of professional organizations such as the American Medical Association led to efforts to license professionals in the medical field, and also to the creation of medical schools with standardized curricula.  The AMA also created a Bureau of Investigation.  That division reviewed medical practices and sought to suppress those that had no legitimate scientific basis.

It was in the middle of the 19th century that the practice of “wellness” became big business.  In the U.S., probably the most famous wellness practitioners were the Kellogg brothers.  In order to understand many of the practices in the wellness arena, we will review the career of John Harvey Kellogg.

John Harvey Kellogg:

John Harvey Kellogg was the founder of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, in Battle Creek, Michigan.  This institution first opened in 1866 as the Western Health Reform Institute, and in 1876 J.H. Kellogg became the superintendent of the establishment (and changed its name to the Battle Creek Sanitarium or BCS), while his brother W.K. Kellogg was the bookkeeper of the “San.”

Fig. 1: John Harvey Kellogg

In its heyday, the Sanitarium housed as many as 7,000 patients per year, and had a staff of up to a thousand.  Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist, was an ardent champion of wellness.  His books and columns on the subject reached a wide audience, and he was a charismatic figure.  In our experience, questionable efforts in the wellness arena are motivated by sincere but misplaced confidence in particular practices, and/or a desire to get rich.  Although J.H. Kellogg made a great deal of money from his Sanitarium, his work was fueled by the absolute certainty that he had been chosen by God to improve the health and well-being of his clients.

The doctrines followed by the Sanitarium were the products of J.H. Kellogg’s personal convictions.  Some of these represented laudatory, even revolutionary, efforts to improve the health of the population.  First, Kellogg was a strict vegetarian (this was before the term had even been coined).  He substituted whole grains, nuts and fiber-rich foods for the extremely high-fat, high-sodium diets of meats and fried foods that were popular at the time.  Kellogg was also an evangelical advocate for yogurt, which was provided daily to his guests.  In addition, he oversaw a small army of cooks and ensured that his Sanitarium was supplied with wholesome fresh produce.  Kellogg also required that his patients drink eight glasses of water each day.

At a time when few Americans ate breakfast, Kellogg focused on this as the “most important meal of the day.”  Kellogg’s brother W.K. Kellogg took a somewhat different direction.  W.K. decided to market some of the whole-food items produced at the Sanitarium.  He replaced the wheat base of breakfast cereals with corn, added sugar (a move that was denounced by his brother J.H.), and marketed Corn Flakes in a package that contained his signature.  W.K. Kellogg’s innovative marketing techniques made him a fortune in the fledgling breakfast cereal industry.

J.H. Kellogg also insisted on abstention from alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.  In 1922 Kellogg published an influential book Tobaccoism, which is believed to be the first major book that alerted its readers to the health hazards of smoking.   Kellogg also stressed the benefits of exercise.  His Sanitarium contained walking trails and athletic fields, he maintained a vast array of bicycles, and the Sanitarium also featured stables of horses and carriages available for his guests.

All of these features of the Sanitarium provided a healthy, albeit expensive, atmosphere for the guests.  In addition, practices at the “San” reflected some of Kellogg’s unusual quirks.  For example, Kellogg had a fixation on regular bowel movements.  While on a safari in Africa, he observed that monkeys defecated four times per day, and so he mandated that guests at the Sanitarium must produce that many bowel movements.

Regular consumption of yogurt was required in order to assist this process.  In addition, Kellogg maintained an extensive array of hydrotherapy rooms at the Sanitarium, where enemas were frequently administered.  Figure 2 shows one of the hydrotherapy rooms at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Fig. 2: a hydrotherapy room at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, with enema machine at right.

In addition to the practice of hydrotherapy, Kellogg also made use of a number of devices that ranged from high-tech (for the 19th century) electrical instruments to decidedly low-tech contraptions.  An example of the second type is shown in Fig. 3 – it is a mechanical slapping massage device that was available at the BCS.

Fig. 3: a mechanical slapping device provided by the Battle Creek Sanitarium to the sailing vessel Queen Mary.

The BCS also provided a number of machines that used electricity or radiation.  At the time, the properties of electro-mechanical devices were not completely understood, so the benefits from these therapies varied greatly.  On the one hand, vibrating machines run by electricity would provide passive exercise for guests; however, there were also machines whose efficacy was rather dubious.  Figure 4 shows a patient at BCS inside electro-therapy coils.

Fig. 4: a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium receiving electro-therapy treatment.

And the photo below shows a patient whose mouth is being ‘treated’ with ultra-violet rays for dental purposes.

Fig. 5: a dental patient being treated with ultra-violet rays.

The BCS featured a number of procedures or gadgets whose therapeutic value was minimal or even potentially dangerous.  All of the devices at BCS reflected the personal values of J.H. Kellogg.  In addition to some idiosyncratic electrical devices, the BCS insisted on extensive use of enemas (this dubious wellness practice persists today – see the section on “coffee enemas” in Part II of our Wellness Fads series).   Kellogg was obsessive about bodily cleanliness.

In addition, Kellogg had some very strong prejudices regarding sex.  Sex was strictly forbidden at the BCS.  Moreover, Kellogg held some bizarre views on masturbation.  For example, Kellogg maintained that excessive masturbation was responsible for the following conditions: idiocy; spinal derangement; heart palpitations; nervous breakdowns; epilepsy; warts; uterine cancer; and insanity.  Furthermore, he believed that masturbation by females could produce the following birth defects in their children: hydrocephalus; palsy; tuberculosis; softening of the brain; convulsions; inflammation of the membranes of the brain or spinal cord.

Kellogg urged parents to monitor their children to prevent them from even touching their genitals.  He provided a list of behaviors that were indicators to parents of unhealthy sexual arousal in their children.  These included: bed wetting; insomnia; bad grades; bashfulness; boldness; fearfulness; or flirtatious behavior by little girls.  His proposed ‘treatments’ for masturbation included the use of uncomfortable beds (Kellogg particularly recommended using a mattress filled with corn husks), bandaging the private parts, or tying the hands of children.

If the problem persisted, Kellogg was willing to recommend more drastic action.  For boys he recommended circumcision – but performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect on the mind.  For girls, Kellogg would occasionally recommend a clitorectomy.  There is no indication that Kellogg had the slightest scientific evidence to support any of these beliefs.

The practices of the Battle Creek Sanitarium reflect those that one finds in the wellness industry today.  The positive aspects of this movement remain the same: an emphasis on eating healthy foods; stress on the benefits of exercise; and avoiding over-indulgence in caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.   We support the positive aspects of the wellness movement, to the extent that the treatments are supported by the best available scientific evidence.

Our series focuses on “wellness fads.”  We define these as regimens based on pseudo-scientific arguments that either have no basis in fact, or that actually contradict known scientific principles.  As examples of dubious wellness practices, we have chosen people who are widely known and who are influential in their fields.  These include a cardiothoracic surgeon, an endocrinologist and a famous actress.  In each case we concentrate our attention on dubious or even dangerous advice and recommendations provided by these sources.

While some of the practices reviewed here may be harmful, other examples either provide genuine health benefits, or appear to have no value.  One could argue that some of these practices do no real harm, and might provide some spiritual benefits.  For example, this is an argument that is frequently offered on behalf of astrology.  Even though the “scientific” arguments regarding the efficacy of astrology are nonsense, it is claimed that the practice can be useful because it stimulates the user to consider the possibilities and pitfalls that may confront them.

We would respond that there are plenty of practices that can confer spiritual benefits without having to resort to magical thinking.   The scientific method has proved to be a powerful, and quite possibly unique, way to separate those theories that have legitimate value from pseudo-scientific hypotheses.  If one examines the claims made by the ‘wellness advisors’ that we review, we find adherents of useless or even harmful practices, such as homeopathy, anti-vaxxers and ‘de-toxification’ regimens.

Some argue that the best policy is to simply ignore these dubious wellness fads.  The claim is that by criticizing these practices, one provides them with free publicity.  If so, the net result of “debunking” wellness fads might be that their practitioners make even greater profits.  There is some evidence to support this view.  In Part II of this series, we review some of the more ludicrous ‘wellness’ claims for products and practices endorsed by actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop company.  Several of the products and techniques hyped by goop have been subjected to ridicule by media critics.  Talk-show hosts have been particularly scathing about claims made for products sold by goop.

However, it has been pointed out that despite (or perhaps because of) this ridicule of  their products, the value of the goop company has skyrocketed to over $250 million.  When scientists or analysts criticize products endorsed by goop, the articles nearly always provide URLs that link to the goop website.  This results in significant traffic to the company website, and increased sales for goopGoop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow is outspoken in claiming that she benefits from criticism. “I can monetize those eyeballs,” she says about negative reviews that bring visitors to her website.

The Internet acts as a gigantic bazaar where many dubious claims appear to thrive, and the wellness business is sufficiently large that it attracts many scam artists.  In our debunking blog, we continue to subject these hucksters to scientific criticism, in the hope that rational argument will prevail.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, John Harvey Kellogg
Wikipedia, Will Keith Kellogg
Wikipedia, Battle Creek Sanitarium
Therese Oneill, John Harvey Kellogg’s Legacy of Cereal, Sociopathy and Sexual Mutilation,
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million, New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2018.

Continue to Part I