Before I explain how I became an alternative health skeptic, let me explain how I became an alternative medicine evangelist in the first place.
I was a holistic nutritionist for several years, and a proponent of alternative health for many years before that. Holistic nutrition probably means different things to different people, but broadly speaking it’s a lifestyle approach that promotes a diet based on natural, organic, and unprocessed foods, and eschews things like additives and GMOs in favor of “superfoods” and the benefits of all-natural dietary supplements. It was exactly what I needed to believe in as I became more and more skeptical of mainstream healthcare.
That’s because the thing that lead me to become a holistic nutritionist in the first place was a trait that I’ve always been proud of: My noble affinity for doubting and questioning absolutely everything around me.
See, holistic nutritionists help clients on their quest for personal health by addressing the “whole person”—mind, body, and spirit. I was drawn to holistic nutrition because I felt that mainstream western medicine by and large dismissed or just didn’t really take into account aspects of health I felt were important—diet, psychological wellbeing, and spiritual health. I was critical of what I felt was the industry’s failure to treat the whole person. I thought that alternative medicine—specifically holistic nutrition—was the answer. I became a vocal and fervent evangelist for my new lifestyle, all while walking barefoot, preaching organic only, and swearing by non-toxic and detoxifying cure-alls. My lifestyle was a sword that I brandished in the face of all those who would listen.
Turns out, the blade of scrutiny I was wielding was actually a balloon sword. Squeaky, brightly colored, and pretty much imaginary. Over time, that beloved balloon sword started to deflate until all I had left was a sad little pile of crumpled latex. I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass? It’s a bit of a convoluted story that I am still trying to dissect myself. I can’t say I came to my senses as the result of a single event, but rather as a result of a series of events that caused one domino to fall, then another, then another, until I was standing in a pile of toppled beliefs, left to figure out what I really, actually believed wellness is all about.
It began when I was living in Italy in 2008. I’d started following a vegan diet, and I was pretty dogmatic about it. I was sure that going plant-based was an all-purpose health solution for everything from the skin issues I’d had since late adolescence to the weight I wanted to lose. And I made sure everyone knew it. Until a few years later, that is, when my health started to fall apart. My digestive system was a complete wreck and I had a rash on my face I couldn’t get rid of. I’m not saying that my eating habits caused these problems, but it certainly didn’t seem to be helping them. I went to a naturopath and starting taking supplements and eating fewer refined foods. When my symptoms started to clear up, I figured it was the supplements and dietary changes. (Granted, the skin problems came back a couple years later, at which point I went to an allopathic doctor who prescribed a topical cream that started working overnight.)
Convinced of the healing powers of dietary change, for the next eight years I tried all kinds of different diets—gluten-free, paleo, keto, etc.
In the midst of all my experimenting to find the one I hoped would be the key that unlocked the mysteries of health and happiness, I enrolled in a natural nutrition program in Canada, one that would prep me for a career as a dedicated holistic nutritionist. I started an Instagram account about holistic nutrition that gained popularity and before long, I had graduated (more on that in a bit) and was running my own online business, doing nutritional consultations for clients all over the world.
As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients. The world of supplements is one, generally speaking, where the lack of evidence for the “solutions” being peddled is obscured by the fact that these products are part of a multi-billion dollar market, and, thanks in large part to the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Education Act, essentially in an unregulated—or more pointedly, a self-regulated—industry in the United States (according to the FDA’s website, “the law does not require the manufacturer or seller prove to FDA's satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.”). In other words: Proof of product efficacy or safety is not required in advance of being sold to the public. To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these "natural" and "holistic" products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.
Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions. Here are a few examples of the types of studies I cited that "proved" (or so I thought) the efficacy of home remedies, along with their limits:
Seven small clinical trials on whether black and/or green tea can reduce cardiovascular disease risk did find small beneficial effects. But, a review of these seven trials (plus four others) concluded that the studies were at risk of potential bias and that their results should be treated with caution.
In 2012 a systematic review of studies on antioxidants found “no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention” despite the fact that, as the review notes, previous research had suggested that antioxidant supplements have beneficial health effects.
This 2015 study found that ingesting vinegar before a meal could improve insulin resistance. But alas, the study had only eight subjects. And what about this study, also from 2015, which supposedly showed that vinegar had a positive effect on post-meal carbohydrate metabolism for the study’s subjects? It only looked at 11 participants, all of whom had type 2 diabetes.
Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”
In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.
But eventually I found myself watching talks from popular internet skeptics and pseudoscience debunkers.
When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.
When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.
I was also mixed up: I had come to associate various trends and fads with true wellness, despite the fact that I didn’t have any real evidence to back all that up.
And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.
As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.
There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.
And look, I did learn valuable information, such as the the cardinal rules for nurturing a healthy human: ample sleep, a variety of whole foods, stress management, and regular exercise.
The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying "treat," "heal," "prevent," or "cure." Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”
In the U.S., the laws around this vary. For example, in some states practitioners who are not registered dietitians are not legally allowed to perform nutrition counseling. In others, anyone can perform nutrition counseling but only registered dietitians are accredited by the government as providers whose services are eligible for insurance reimbursement.
With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That's about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.
The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.
This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.
Denby Royal is a writer, former holistic nutritionist, and fashion industry veteran. She currently lives on the west coast of Canada. Check out her website here.