Let’s examine the continuum of bullshit around influencer-led nutrition media by breaking things down into three categories:
- Secret knowledge and the keys to the kingdom
- Conspiracy: what they don’t want you to know
- Geniuses and the bleeding edge of science
Secret knowledge and the keys to the kingdom
A friend once described hipsters to me as people who are nostalgic for a time that never existed. I’ve since expanded that idea to all matter of opinions on politics, economics, social order, and—of course—health. Influencers, beginning with Jean Jacques Rousseau, have long been telling us that we once held the keys to the kingdom but then fumbled the play. The truth was in our hands but has been lost to time and so-called progress.
I’m not saying that this is entirely the wrong take. Human beings— the kind we now like, comment, and subscribe to—have been kicking around for at least 100 thousand years. Our ancestors were smarter than most gave them credit for. So, just because we can’t like, comment, and subscribe on the influencers of pre-history, it doesn’t meant that their time(s) weren’t filled with wisdom, insight, and creativity—often in excess of our own. That’s important to say. However, the odds on a social media influencer having exclusive access to that stuff is… a reach.
Take the Liver King and his ancestral tenets. Getting outside, working hard, taking care of your community, etc. is all good stuff. It will probably move your physique forward—if that’s your kind of thing. However, when he was outed for stuffing over $12K/month of steroids into his body, it seemed like maybe (just maybe) the results of his advice and supplement line were not as advertised. It’s a bummer because there were probably people following his official advice to the letter but feeling like failures because their bodies had failed to achieve Dragon Ball Z status.
Conspiracy: what they don’t want you to know
This type of thinking tends to rely on a single lever: START consuming this or STOP consuming that and all your problems will be taken care of. It caters to our need for certainty and simplicity. And perhaps a measure of moral purity. The START side of things is usually a supplement but may be a magical food that you too can access through a multi-level marketing company.
The STOP camp has also featured fats, carbs, and proteins, gluten, seed oils and—confusingly—vegetables. There is a nebulous and nefarious other at play here—trying to corrupt your pure, natural state. Annoyingly (to me, anyway), these folks are often right for the wrong reasons. Take seed oils, for example. Will they promote inflammation, leech nutrients from your gut, and turn you into a bad tipper? The truth has less to do with the origin of a food and more to do with how it’s processed.
Avoiding ultra-processed foods is a good general approach for health. However, it’s less about a secret cabal and more about how companies prioritize profits over your wellbeing. This can feel a little too on-the-nose, though. So, rather than expressing concerns with hexane solvents and other chemicals in food processing, we’ve got everyone hating on canola oil. Maybe it’s simpler and easier to (mentally) process information this way. Maybe it’s even for the best. Like I said, right for the wrong reasons.
If you remember the Bulletproof Coffee guy from trends past, you’ll remember how he painted a picture of his special coffee beans being mycotoxin-free. Avoiding dangerous mould, etc. feels like it’s worth the high price-tag until you realize that the speciality coffee industry has strict QA in place and it’s been decades since mycotoxins, etc. were an issue.
Geniuses and the bleeding edge of science
Generally, there’s less nonsense here. Research is cited. Diligence is rendered. Things make sense. However, less bullshit is not zero bullshit. There are three potential issues:
1. Information here often disproportionately prioritizes the limits of human physiology
As a trending example, it may sound like ashwagandha supplementation could give you the edge you need. However, it’s more likely that your highest ROI choices are improving execution on the basics of sleep, exercise, whole foods, and stress management. Unsexy basics don’t tend to sell, though. Alas.
2. Even smart people are susceptible to epistemic overreach.
It is just so damn tempting to think that someone who is smart and accomplished at one thing will show up in the same way elsewhere. With all of the dunking on Elon Musk lately, I am compelled to go back to Linus Pauling instead. This guy managed to become the only scientist to win two Nobel prizes on his own. He was also loudly, aggressively wrong about vitamin supplementation. RFK Jr. vibes. It goes to show that highly-specialized smarts don’t always transfer well into other domains.
3. It’s harder to maintain objectivity when people are waving dollars in your face.
When you’re getting $150K a month to hawk a fairly benign supplement, it’s tough to give it the level of scrutiny it deserves. Here’s a great video takedown of the popular and uncontroversial AG1 supplement that a wonderful, weird friend sent me yesterday—and got the gears turning on today’s newsletter.
The truth is out there friends. And it’s probably a lot simpler than expected. So, I find that the best approach with health influencers is to treat their content as entertainment and look for opportunities to run small experiments when you find their ideas interesting. There’s more to this subject but that kind of wisdom is only available through my exclusive supplement line. Operators are standing by.