What The Alternative Health Community Must Learn From Jess Ainscough

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I’ll start this post by saying that I didn’t know Jess, that I didn’t “follow” her work beyond occasionally reading some articles she wrote, and this article is not an attack on Jess as a person, her character, her motivations, or her beliefs.

This blog post was inspired by a controversial discussion I started on my Facebook page after reading an article that took a tough, critical look at Jess’s actions through her Wellness Warrior blog and business.

This is obviously a tragic situation and my heart goes out to her family and friends during this difficult time. I can’t even imagine the pain they’re going through and I pray they will find peace amidst the tragedy. Cancer is a horrible illness, and even having watched family members die from cancer, I still can’t imagine what Jess went through over the past 7 years of her illness.

Nobody deserves to die from cancer, no matter what choices they made prior to the diagnosis and during the treatment, so do not misconstrue this post as saying that Jess deserved this outcome because of her treatment decisions.

She did not. No one does.

However, I feel it is important to shed a light on a topic that has been bothering me over the past year as I have been building my business as a nutritionist and health consultant.

This issue is the use of persuasive marketing to promote diet and lifestyle choices that are purported to cure a person from any disease or health related concern.

What do I mean by persuasive marketing?

I mean anything that may convince a person to follow someone’s advice due to the psychological effects the marketing has on that person’s faith in the advice being given.

This includes things like beautiful photography and web design, personal stories written with embellished positivity, videos with confident and attractive speakers, and even the scare tactics used in articles with headlines along the lines of “The Cancer Causing Food You’re Eating Right Now” and other fear mongering nonsense.

I’ll admit that as a health blogger, I’ve employed some of these strategies in the past to get more attention to my work. A lot of people criticized my article entitled “Is a Low-Carb Diet Ruining Your Health?” for having a fear mongering title. (Yes, this title had shock value, but honestly I’ve had patients who were ruining their health and wellbeing by severely limiting carbohydrates and were able to restore their health by reintroducing healthy carbs.)

There’s a fine line between an attention-grabbing title and a title that makes people feel fear, and sometimes that line depends on the person who is reading the article. It’s a slippery slope that is difficult to maneuver in the world of online marketing. But it’s one where we absolutely must tread carefully.

Unfortunately, as more and more health “experts” enter the world of online health education, these tactics are employed more regularly and misleadingly than ever. Whether that tactic be fear or false hope, there is a lot of health information being promoted online that is not only inaccurate but potentially dangerous for certain peoples’ health. (And sometimes the inaccuracy comes from omission rather than outright falsification.)

I see it all the time in my nutrition practice where people believe that things they’ve learned about online like a super strict, “clean” diet or alternative “therapies” will make all their health problems go away, and it’s not working for them. Sometimes they’re actually worsening their health by faithfully following well-marketed online health gurus’ advice.

I’m not just talking about the people promoting juice fasts, coffee enemas, or raw veganism. I’m also talking about the people promoting a strict low carb (even ketogenic) Paleo diet for everyone regardless of glucose tolerance or activity levels. I’m talking about the people making claims that those of you drinking their brand of coffee will lose weight and gain IQ points. I’m talking about men and women posting pictures of their chiseled abs and thigh gaps and suggesting that they achieved those results by using whatever MLM shake du jour they are making a profit selling.

All of it is marketing, and all of it is dangerous when used misleadingly.

So how do we sift through truth versus good marketing? How do we make sure that we’re not following advice from an internet “celebrity” who is truly not experiencing the vibrant health and wellness they are advertising?

Honestly I’m not really sure. But I hope that as a community, we can take home two different important lessons from Jess’s tragic death.

The first is, as consumers of health information online, we need to be far more critical about what we’re reading when it comes to health and wellness recommendations, and take everything we read with a grain of salt.

Persuasive marketing techniques can be powerful in communicating a message, and when that message is “do this and you’ll achieve perfect health”, it’s an incredibly dangerous one. I’ve seen multiple patients with eating disorders that developed from following the online advice they read, which caused fear and paranoia around a food as simple as a banana.

Even if you don’t develop an eating disorder from the diet you’re eating, you still need to think critically about the advice you’re following. This might mean that someone with high cholesterol (above 300 mg/dL) and a high LDL-P score shouldn’t be eating unlimited amounts of butter and bacon, and that someone who is trying to heal from a digestive disorder should get a second opinion before supplementing with potato starch.

Or that maybe conventional treatment like medication or surgery really is your best option, and it shouldn’t be discounted simply because it’s not “natural.” This includes everything from (medically appropriate) statins and thyroid medication, to amputation and corrective surgeries.

This is why working with a licensed medical professional (or two!) is important when trying to make decisions about your health. You shouldn’t be trying to do this alone using advice given from a health blogger with a weekend-long certification course under their belt, or from a PhD who has never worked with a single patient before.

There are hundreds of ancestral-health minded practitioners who can help guide you through the good and the bad advice you’ve been exposed to online, and to get you on a health protocol that is tailored to your unique and individual needs. (Check out PrimalDocs.com or PaleoPhysiciansNetwork.com for a list in your area.) Don’t try to do all of this on your own without at least one other objective opinion.

The second thing we need to learn as health communicators, whether we have our own blog or we are simply sharing information with friends and family, that we need to be forthcoming about our experience with the strategies we are recommending, good or bad.

While there is a lot of pressure on those of us who present ourselves as health experts to look perfect and have perfect health, the reality is that no one has perfect health, and often times the stress of running a business designed to help others with their health can cause it’s own problems for our health.

There’s been some great blog posts in the Paleo community recently, most notably by Sarah Ballantyne and Stacy Toth, explaining the health problems they have been experiencing and how their diet, supplement, and lifestyle protocols have not been enough to completely rid them of symptoms. As Stacy pointed out:

For those of us on our path to health, we are constantly seeking answers and learning from others. Being honest and open about such health conditions, while in the midst of resolving them, creates a sense of vulnerability that is incredibly scary.

While there’s nothing wrong with using marketing to promote your work and to gain new clients, those of us in the business of health need to be extremely careful that we don’t mislead people into thinking that our dietary strategy will cure them of all their health issues or that we ourselves are in “perfect health” when we’re not.

While this level of transparency is anxiety-provoking, it’s necessary so that we can be confident we’re not misleading anyone with our advice, however well-intentioned it is. People who are seriously unwell can become desperate and even more susceptible to false hope, and we need to be  careful that we are portraying the truth as transparently as possible whenever we are making recommendations to the public.

It honestly breaks my heart when I see patients who have severe health issues that believe that if they simply get their diet perfected, that their health issue will go away completely, as they see health bloggers marketing a specific diet protocol in that way.

I hate having to be the one to tell them that their diet may not be enough to change their health, and that certain health problems cannot be entirely solved by adherence to a strict diet and lifestyle protocol. But sometimes that knowledge can ameliorate some of the anxiety that comes with the belief that they could or should be doing something better with their diet than they already are.

Again, this is where conventional medicine like drugs or surgery may be helpful when diet and lifestyle are not enough. And it may even mean letting go of the idea that we have complete control over our health and physical wellbeing. Because for as much influence as we have in our health, nobody has complete control over what happens to their bodies.

Jess’s death has brought this issue to a head for me, and I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the problem I’ve been seeing more and more in the online alternative health community. We need to be mindful of the information we consume as well as that which we share with others, and make sure we are not painting a picture of our health advice being more successful than it truly is.

Again, I hope that no one sees this article as an attack on Jess herself, or the advice she was giving to others. I simply believe this tragedy is an extreme example of when marketing goes too far in covering up the downsides or shortcomings of alternative health recommendations, and we all need to acknowledge the dangers in reading and/or writing about this type of information.

As I said in my Facebook post, it’s both a wonderful and scary time to be able to learn so much about health on the internet, accurate or not. We need to stay skeptical and trust our own experience above all else, even if someone else seems to be having incredible health improvements from a particular diet or lifestyle strategy.

Please don’t ever put another person’s supposed experience above whatever is (or isn’t) working for you. And remember that sometimes being sick, and even dying, has nothing to do with your diet and lifestyle choices.

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  1. This is such an important perspective. Thank you for sharing your perspective, and I look forward to reading more articles like this. Individuals suffering from chronic illness can be tempted to try everything in a desperate search for answers. The way you ended this article helps remember us all to have grace for ourselves, and what we ultimately may not have control over.