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Healthy or hoax? The five warning signs of a dodgy wellness trend

Before you spend your hard-earned money on the next health craze, find out how to figure out the difference between a good investment and a passing fad.

From radical diets to exotic supplements and trendy therapies, there have never been so many tempting wellness trends to choose from.

Fuelled by pretty pictures of green smoothies, inspiring success stories and ultra-fit bodies in lycra on the Internet and social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a lot of miracle work being done out there.

But these images and words are, of course, designed to convince us to ultimately buy into whatever products or services are being sold.

And we know – given the recent cases of wellness advocates Belle Gibson and the late Jessica Ainscough, who each falsely claimed to be healing themselves of cancer with alternative therapies – things are not always as they seem.

So before we part with our cash, how do we figure out what’s legitimate and what’s not?

Professor Darren Saunders, a leading cancer researcher at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, says we should watch out for wellness advocates who speak with absolute certainty in their ideas, allowing no room for doubt.

“Debate is an inherent part of science,” Prof Saunders says. “Uncertainty is part of the scientific language. This leaves scientists fighting back against [alternative wellness] nonsense with one-hand tied behind our backs.”

Blogger Rosalie Hilleman, who publicly challenges health claims made by popular online wellness advocates like the late “Wellness Warrior” Jessica Ainscough, warns the Internet is giving alternative wellness spruikers “instant celebrity and credibility”.

“[Wellness advocates] tend to take a grain of truth and embellish it, so some of their claims actually sound plausible,” she says. “[They often] have a lovely, and simple story that they sell: if you do what they say, you will be healthy, cured, never get ill, prevent cancer, whatever. It can be difficult for the average person to tell what is true and what isn’t.”

To help you cut through the hype, we’ve put together five red flags to watch out for:

1.Personal testimonials
Look for evidence rather than getting sucked in by gushing personal testimonials, which are supposed to convince you to get on board. Scientific evidence might not be as colorful or easy to read as an uplifting personal story but it will be more balanced and honest. Seek out large randomized controlled studies or meta-analyses.

2.One-size-fits-all
Promises to help you lose weight? Treats cancer? Cures autism? A cure-all is understandably an attractive proposition – but this is also a classic warning sign that something is too good to be true. Which means it almost certainly is.

3.Ancient wisdom
It’s easy to romanticize the traditions of our ancestors, particularly if they’re mysterious and exotic. But while useful knowledge has been passed down through generations, this doesn’t mean old is best. Modern medicine and science have made enormous leaps, which is why we live longer today than ever before.

4.Guru figure
Be wary of any wellness movement led by a single figure or based on a special ingredient, especially when they aren’t qualified and perpetuate conspiracy theories about why they aren’t supported by mainstream medicine. If in doubt, ask your family GP who can provide a qualified opinion.

5.All natural
Being “natural” doesn’t mean it’s better or safer. There are plenty of natural things that are toxic, for example, and sometimes only an artificial intervention will save your life. While choosing an apple is no doubt healthier than a donut, it doesn’t follow that a juice regime is better than chemotherapy at treating cancer.

If you have been the victim of a wellness scam, you can report it to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission at scamwatch.com.au

To read The Weekly’s full investigation into the alternative wellness movement, see the July issue on sale from Thursday

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