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Health Washing. Part Two: What Is It And How Might It Affect You?

Health washing is used to describe an ideology that proclaims to be ‘healthy’ but in fact is the opposite.


“Health-washing is a term used when a company or group positions themselves as a leader in healthy eating or ideas, while actually engaging in practices that may be contributing to our poor health.” Meghan Telpner.


Companies and individuals use terminology, branding and social media campaigns to make profit from ideals the general public believe in and invest their time and money into. It’s an extremely clever and devious way of making us feel like we are working on improving our health and wellbeing while actually causing harm (even though we don’t recognise it). We buy into a lifestyle choice thinking we are being healthy but in fact just lining the pockets of someone else.



The health and well-being sector is a highly profitable market as highlighted by the Global Wellness Institutes data below. With all this money we are spending you would think that our health and wellbeing is improving, wouldn’t you? But yet our Governments are still telling us that we are obese, at risk of developing diabetes, heart and lung diseases. That suicide rates are increasing, mental health charities are over worked. That we don’t do the Government’s recommended 150mins of exercise a week and our children are less active and more vulnerable than ever before.



The Food Industry.

Health washing in the food industry is well documented online. I have found pages of articles and blogs on the subject. Some of them are in the references and make a good read. Labelling and advertising campaigns have led us to believe some foods have super powers while others will make us fat and that labels saying ‘low fat’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘natural ingredients’, ‘high in protein’ and the colour green mean that a product must be healthy. More recently I’ve noticed companies and supermarkets jumping on the veganism/plant based wagon. Promoting them as a healthier choice, believe me, many of these products are far from healthy. As a fellow vegan I can assure you vegans are no healthier or unhealthier than omnivores. A lifestyle that was once mocked and belittled is now endorsed by celebrities, sportspeople and social media influencers alike. Why? Because it’s ethically right? Because it’s better for the environment? No, of course not. It’s about predicting trends that will make a profit.


“The global vegan food market size is expected to grow from $13.55 billion in 2021 to $14.45 billion in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.6%. The vegan food market is expected to grow to $18.73 billion in 2026 at a CAGR of 6.7%.” The Business Research Company.


On the other side, the meat and dairy industry has used ‘health’ messages to endorse their products. For example, the strong, lean, muscular man tucking into his steak. The pretty, thin woman eating her low fat yoghurt. Or the smiling, happy child munching through their lump of cheese. All with captions saying things like “a good source of protein. May contribute to healthy bone development. Contains energy boosting vitamins. Etc, etc.”


“In the UK, 13 minutes of midday sunlight exposure during summer three times per week is enough to maintain healthy levels among Caucasian adults.” https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-from-sun#time-of-day.



So, maybe instead of buying a product that says added vitamin D and potentially costing you more, you could just get outdoors more often?


The worst of the lot are supplement companies. If I bought everything these companies told me I needed I would be poor and have no cupboard space left in my kitchen! Their marketing is ruthless and prey on the naïve or desperate. I do think people are getting savvy to these food and supplement practices and are beginning to see through them which is great. However, the real hidden troll in the health washing debate is the fitness industry and quite possibly your personal trainer.



The Fitness Industry

What does health washing in the fitness industry look like? Why don’t you see it coming? It’s really so fucking clever. They make you believe that you need them and so you come willingly. And if you do question their motives they say we are providing a service based on the desires of our customer. But the truth is what the industry has done is convince you that you need them by making you feel miserable about yourself. Our brains have been saturated with images of what being healthy looks like but it turns out that it’s just an unattainable shopping list. Think of it like a Pinterest board; here we have pictures of smiling, thin or muscular people eating their ‘healthy’ meals, in the gym lifting a dumbbell while wearing the latest activewear and afterwards sipping on their nutritious shake or eating a protein bar all while laughing and having fun. Living the ‘healthy’ dream.



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We have had our Pinterest board lifestyle pushed onto us for some time now in various different guises however, I first started becoming more aware of it during the lockdown’s of 2020/21. And this, for me is where it took a more sinister path. Going far beyond the sales of ‘truthiness’ products and exercises. Because while physical activity profits plummeted, the mental health, healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss industries made profits.


Physical Activity (pandemic loser, future winner): This six-sector market grew 5% from 2018-2019 (to reach $874 billion), but revenues fell 15.5% in 2020 (to $738 billion). The fitness subsector (gyms, studios, classes) suffered a severe -37% revenue decline in 2020. Fitness technology was, of course, the bright spot, exploding 29% in 2020 to become a $49.5 billion market–with digital apps, streaming and on-demand workout platforms surging 40%. The segment’s hybrid bricks-and-mortar/digital future is bright: the market will nearly double–from $738 billion to $1.2 trillion–from 2020-2025.

Mental Wellness (pandemic and future winner): Posted strong 7% growth from 2019-2020 (from a $122 billion to a $131 billion market), as consumers desperately sought solutions to help them cope with pandemic stresses. The largest segment, “senses, spaces and sleep,” grew 12.4%, while the smallest segment, meditation and mindfulness, grew the fastest (25%). The forecast: strong 10% growth annually through 2025, to reach $210 billion.

Healthy Eating, Nutrition & Weight Loss (pandemic and future winner): One of the few wellness sectors that maintained positive growth (3.6%) during the pandemic, which launched a wave of interest in home cooking, healthy food, and immunity-focused foods and supplements. The sector grew from $858 billion in 2017 to $912 billion in 2019 to $945.5 billion in 2020–and is forecast to grow 5% annually through 2025, to reach $1.2 trillion.

The Global Wellness Institute.


So, what did the fitness industry do. It capitalised on the fact that people were getting fat and their mental health was on the floor by offering them online services and motivational slogan’s like ‘ab’s aren’t built in the kitchen’ and ‘join me so your ‘peach’ doesn’t turn into a ‘pancake’. (I shit you not a PT actually used these to promote an online class). And although I am sure, some of my fellow fitness professionals really did think they were helping, some saw an opportunity to make money and grow their business. Online coaching with its dubiously qualified trainers took off, YouTube had an abundance of garden workouts and sofa weight training videos and we had our daily IG pep talk from ‘Carrie’ in her tits and arse new activewear telling us she knows how we feel, don’t worry about putting on weight, she is too, we can lose it afterwards, let’s stick together! Meanwhile, half the population were frantically doing 100 reps a day with their glute bands and building squat racks from wood with concreate barbells and the other half thought “fuck it” I’m going to bake banana bread, take up macrame and build a bar in the garden instead.



But what do my lockdown stories have to do with health washing today? Because on the back of this many fitness professionals rebranded themselves and realised that the easiest way of getting someone to sign up to their weight loss programme is to disguise it as something else. There has been a distinct shift in people’s exercise motivations and behaviours since 2020. Whereas, before the majority of people would site aesthetic, external reasons for taking up exercise more people are now saying they want to feel better about themselves intrinsically. Which you would think is a good thing but unfortunately the fitness industry didn’t like this rhetoric of thinking and so now we have people selling services claiming it will improve their health and make them feel good by losing weight. Because weight loss is the answer to our health and happiness both inside and out. Basically what the industry has done is nothing. It’s selling the same old shite to miserable people under a different banner. So, yet again we have been convinced that being thin equates to being healthy and more worryingly that exercise is the cure for mental health problems.


Below are a selection of direct quotes from websites that I found in a very short amount of time. I selected some local to me and some further afield. All of them mention something around the term health and make claims about weight loss.


“Happier, Healthier, Fitter and Stronger.” “So You Want To Get Fit?” “Body and mind approach”

“Transformation Coach”. “GET and KEEP results.” “DROP BODY FAT”

“I help women to lose weight” “Find a love for themselves and for fitness” “Escape diet culture.”

“To help you become the strongest, happiest and healthiest version of you” (With transformation pictures underneath caption).

“Health means happiness” “I promise that you’ll lose weight,” “transform your life”

“Feel confident, energized and inspired” “plans to get results fast!”

We help people who want to lose weight, move well and feel great by offering personalised exercise, nutrition and lifestyle coaching.”


They clearly contradict themselves but this blending and bending of words is what gets people signing up. That and their own sob story about how they used to be fat, hate exercise, or had an eating disorder because the “I used to be you” back story always sells. I would love to quote these but it would be more obvious who I was referring to and I don’t want to get into the name shaming business. People identify with this type of marketing because they genuinely believe that having a smaller body is going to make them feel better about themselves. It probably does in the short term until they realise all the things that made them unhappy remain and they put the weight they lost back on and blame it on their personal life getting in the way. Trainer’s are in a win=win situation. Client loses weight. Personal trainer splashes them all over social media saying “you too can be happy like Sarah”. Signs more people up. Sarah becomes miserable and fat again. Trainer indirectly blames Sarah for not continuing with their “revolutionary” training and eating programme. Sarah is convinced it’s her lack of will power and signs up again.




You might ask what’s wrong with this? That these personal trainers are providing a service based on customer demand and this is true but they say the best hustle is the one people walk into willingly.


As in my Health Washing Part 1 https://www.npinspiredcoaching.co.uk/post/health-washing-part-one-health-and-wellbeing I am going to leave you on a positive note. As much as I hate a lot of what goes on in the fitness industry and I am very much anti fitness and diet culture I am still part of it. Whatever decisions people make about exercise and food I want them to do so as well informed as possible. Which is why I continue to write blogs to offer a different point of view, offer ideas to ponder over and concepts to investigate further. If I help just one person realise that they aren’t the problem all my ranting and writing will be worthwhile. I also belong to a strong community of inclusive coaches, there are many of us out there if you look hard enough. We are the people making a real difference to people’s lives. Not through clever marketing but by showing you that health and wellbeing lies within, that movement and food are there to be enjoyed and explored, that your true worth isn’t based on how you look but by your humanity.



Thank you and well done for lasting to the end. Feel free to comment regardless of your view point I won’t be offended. Nicola.


Please note I have deliberately used the stock pictures to identify my point.










References.

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