When Felicitas Famulla stopped adding milk to her coffee, she knew her diet had gone too far. Three years before, little by little, she had started to eliminate carbs from her diet. "Carbs are bad for your body," she had read in health-blogs, and that reducing carbs would help her lose weight. At first, she only banned carbs in the evening. Soon after, carbs for lunch followed. Finally, Felicitas decided to cut out even the few remaining carbs for breakfast. What had started as an attempt to lose weight soon developed into an obsession about food and ultimately orthorexia, a severe eating disorder. The result was not a healthy body, but deficiency symptoms she still hasn’t fully overcome. Looking back, the 21-year old student and blogger from Wiesbaden now calls no-carb diets "the worst thing you can do to the body."
Felicitas’s story is different from the stories many other health-bloggers tell. "Going wheat-free has given me the opportunity to live a normal, active life again," reads a success story on William Davis’s "Wheat Belly" blog. "With paleo, I’ve lost 17 kilos and my aches and pains have disappeared," paleo-devotee Constantin Gonzalez assures. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, famous actress and founder of the ‘detox blog’ "Goop", shares her miraculous experience with us: "I feel pure and happy and much lighter. This thing is amazing."
Eat less, not more
"This thing", in Gwyneth’s case a detox programme, is just one out of many new concepts evolving around the trending topic of health. The market for the sensitive body has grown considerably. Nowadays, gluten- and lactose-free foods can be found in every ordinary supermarket across Germany. A restaurant in Berlin without a vegan option? Hard to find. In the country known for its variety of sausages and beers, a new generation of health-conscious people appears to counter the over-consumption trend. Eat less, not more – self-restriction is the new 'thing'.
From the meanwhile established vegetarians and vegans to the more recent paleo- and gluten-free diets – they all share one promise: not eating X will make you healthier. While this promise is not new, new circumstances such as the 'blogosphere', which serves as a platform for discussion and inspiration, have changed the extent to which people are affected by it. For some, avoiding ‘unhealthy’ foods and sticking to a certain diet has become somewhat of a surrogate religion, a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘orthorexia’. However, there is another important point all these diets share: none of them can provide scientific evidence for their claims. But why then does an ever-growing number of people still believe that these diets will improve their health?
The food industry's clever marketing
Whether we are aware of it or not, whenever we enter a supermarket our minds are constantly manipulated. 'Dairy-free', 'gluten-free', 'fat free' – it is buzzwords like these that get to our brain. We all want a piece of the big healthy 'free-from' cake. Not only do we find dedicated aisles for the new cure-it-all products, they are usually grouped together and form the ‘healthy section’ in supermarkets. You are what you eat: buying vegan burger patties and detox-teas has become an expression of your individually chosen, healthy lifestyle.
Nowadays, gluten-free branding is found on foods that have never actually contained gluten, such as ham or cheese. And the marketing efforts are crowned with success: in Germany, the sales of gluten-free products have soared from 15 million in 2010 to 20 million in 2012, numbers from Statista reveal. However, according to the German Coeliac Society (DZG), only 0,4% of the German population suffers from coeliac disease, a medical condition that requires the complete renunciation of gluten. In a statement, the DZG warns that the common assumption that a gluten-free life is healthier is a misconception: "For a healthy body, gluten-free products do not provide any benefit."
Still, a growing number of people is willing to pay an average of 30-50% more for gluten-free foods, DZG states. Nutritionist Uwe Knop explains that "in the Western world, the market in terms of food is over-saturated. There is a never-ending need for new trends that allow the food industry to sell ordinary products as new products at a much higher price. This only works if you add an extra value to the product, a value that does not actually exist."
These extra values are aimed at a new target group: the well-educated, health-conscious, young generation – above all women. Ordinary banana-shakes are a thing of the past, the new generation tends to go for green detox smoothies with flax seeds instead. Promising health benefits from higher energy levels to purer skin, what remains if you remove the detox-label is, however, nothing more than a green fruit shake, a 2009 study issued by the Sense About Science trust found.
"Terms such as detox are marketing strategies aimed at squeezing money from the customers. Products are charged with an ideology that suggests they are extraordinary. But we have to be aware that we spend extra money on the myth around the product", says Knop. He explains that "whether the product allegedly has been used for thousands of years in ancient Japan or Native American tribes swear by the healing powers of it, customers are fooled into believing that what they buy is anything more than an ordinary product."
Despite its success, in-store-marketing is no longer the only effective channel for the food industry to influence customers.
"There are certain products you just come across all the time on Instagram and blogs. Protein powder by Fitnessguru for example, or organic granola by myMuesli," says Felicitas, who reports about her negative experiences with restrictive diets on her blog. She is convinced that these new platforms play a big role in influencing customers in their purchasing decisions. "Companies often sponsor successful accounts as part of their merchandising, which is far more effective and cheaper than conventional advertising," she explains before pointing to its success: "It definitely works: almost every girl I know is convinced that she needs protein powder."
Indeed, ‘blogger relations’ can turn out to be an effective way to advertise products. The cosmetics industry, for instance, has established a successful strategy where goodie-bags are sent to bloggers, who in turn test and write about the given products. While this strategy can be risky – negative verdicts are pronounced, if scarcely – it is a risk that the food industry too is increasingly willing to take.
According to a BlogHer survey from 2012, 87% among BlogHer network members have made a purchase based on a recommendation from a blog. Among women, 98% trust the information they receive from blogs, BlogHer states – numbers conventional advertising does not dare to dream of.
Not all models are role models
This new form of advertising is taken to yet another level once celebrities enter the game. In their position as role models, a post on Twitter or Instagram has the potential to reach millions of followers. In 2013, Gwyneth Paltrow claimed she cured her son’s eczema after putting the whole family on a gluten-free diet. Giselle Bündchen, on the other hand reported of her great success with the 'Martha's Vineyard Detox Diet' – 21 days of vegetable broth, herbal teas and fruit juices.
Questionable health advice like this can have disastrous effects. "Many teenage girls are concerned with diets and nutrition. They want to look like these supermodels. And they are easily influenced by what bloggers and celebrities post online" says Felicitas.
Unrealistic ideals of beauty are spread all over the media. Photoshoped pictures of young, thin, healthy women. It is symbolic of a Western society, in which being overweight is frowned upon and staying young and beautiful seems to be what drives people. Felicitas’s eating disorder, too, arose from the desire to lose weight: "I don’t know if it’s a fight against puberty and the female curves that come along with it, or just that at this age, girls are very insecure about themselves."
The alarming success of scaremongers
The insecurity and confusion felt by many people is only too understandable, since studies can be found for every claim. Some people use this confusion to promote alarmist theories – often with great success. Prime example for this phenomenon is the American cardiologist Dr. William Davis, whose "Wheat Belly" publication in 2011 became a New York Times bestseller. The book demonizes not only wheat, but grains in general and blames them for almost every disease from diabetes to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
According to Davis, modern grains – which he calls "Frankengrains" – are no longer traditional strains, but noxious variants created by genetics research and agribusiness. Davis’s theory is worshiped by his followers, but largely dismissed by scientists. A 2013 study by Donald Kasarda of the US Department of Agriculture, for instance, found no evidence for Davis’s claim. Nutritionist Uwe Knop observes that "what Dr. Davis and other people do is stoke fears among the population. And then they use the fear of people to make money with it."
Distrust in traditional recommendations
What people like Davis benefit from is not only the ongoing confusion about what is healthy. "Many people regard science as just one of a number of belief systems of equal validity and importance," writes Marion Nestle in her book “Food Politics”. According to her, religious beliefs or concerns about animal rights may also influence the way people think about health. Indeed, the formation of a new health perception shows that people are increasingly unwilling to simply accept parameters by institutions of authority. According to a 2011 study by the Identity Foundation, not only the levels of spirituality have risen – 40% of all Germans are now interested in meditation and spirituality -, but we also find a turn towards homeopathy, numbers from Statista reveal.
In terms of food, recommendations by government ministries and traditional medicine are increasingly confronted with skepticism. Why should the '5-a-day' theory be any healthier than the paleo diet? In fact, there is no nutritional evidence on the health benefit of '5-a-day' either, says Uwe Knop: "Nutrition science can never prove that one diet is healthier than another. Theories about healthy nutrition are built on faith, not on knowledge."
It is also the simplistic approach of traditional recommendations, in which Nestle sees a problem: "If nutrition guidelines have not seized public attention, it may be because they seem so obvious. Eat more fruit and vegetables? Nothing could be more self-evident. The banality of these guidelines belies their importance".
Are the guidelines too simple for our complicated lives? If life is a struggle, so must our nutrition be?
A society of sensitive souls
In many ways, it seems like the restrictive trends are born out of an urge to reclaim responsibility. We are so free in our choice that we feel overwhelmed and lack directions. "Choosing a certain diet is not only a way to distinguish yourself from others, it is also a sign of group membership", explains Knop.
Caught in a net of external factors that influence our perception of health, we have developed a hyper-sensitivity towards what we eat. Recent food scandals such as the horse-meat scandal in 2013 or the EHEC scandal in 2011 have sharpened our senses and made us more conscious about what we consume. This is mirrored in the growing success of organic food. While in 2000, sales of organic food amounted to 2,1 billion euros, the numbers are as high as 7,9 billion euros in 2012.
Another phenomenon is that nowadays, many people tend to analyze every symptom of the body and share it with the online community. Forums and blogs exist for every allergy and intolerance, such as the German nmiPortal (The Food Intolerance Community), which was established in 2004 and has developed into a major reference point for people with intolerance. "Many people are obsessed, if not fanatic, in their striving towards a healthy body. They worry more about the fructose content of a banana than about topics that really matter," Felicitas states wearily, knowing that there is a fine line between being conscious and being obsessed about what you eat. "Something is going terribly wrong. We have become awfully egocentric."
The urge for the perfect body
In our desire to optimize our body, statistics show that we go to great lengths to make this dream come true. The number of aesthetic plastic surgeries per year in Germany has tripled between 2004 and 2011 to half a million. In the U.S., the number was ten times higher in 2013 than it was back in 1997 – today, more than 11 million Americans go under the knife for their beauty every year. Another factor on the way to the perfect body is exercising. The amount of gym memberships in Germany has doubled since 2003. Nine million go on the treadmill regularly - no pain, no gain.
But our self-obsession becomes most apparent in another trend: self-tracking. With so-called 'tracking apps' we analyse and monitor everything from our hours of sleep, to our menstruation cycle and calorie-intake on our smartphone. Apps like 'My Fitness Pal' and 'Runtastic' allow for ultimate control of our body. Naturally, the perfect body needs the perfect diet. But standing in front of the large buffet of diets, many remain confused.
The luxury of choice
Felicitas now tries to keep a balance between healthy food and soulfood. "I’ve come to realize that pleasure is part of a healthy lifestyle too," she says and pities those caught in a spiral of self-restriction and calorie-counting. Our grandparents would have probably shaken their heads in disbelief at people who willingly reject bread. Not too long ago, in Germany and large parts of the Western world, restriction was not a trendy lifestyle but a bitter reality for many. Back then, however, it was not a matter of choice. Even today, our restrictive diets must seem cynical to people living in other parts of the world. In the end, we should not forget that being able to eat whatever and whenever we want is primarily a luxury, not a burden.
Hanna Valerie Wolf is a journalist from Stuttgart currently pursuing a Master's degree in Media and Politics at the University of Amsterdam. She worked for several media outlets in Germany, the U.S and Denmark. Reach her on Twitter.