By Usha Lee McFarling
LOS ANGELES -- Canadian lawyer Tim Caulfield has made it his mission to expose fraudulent health advice -- particularly when it comes from Hollywood stars. He's a relentless debunker on Twitter. And his book "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?" marshals boatloads of scientific evidence to skewer the long parade of celebrities who tout magical cures that will supposedly keep us all cellulite-free and young forever. The book was just shortlisted for a Canadian Science Writers' Association award.
STAT caught up with Caulfield, a health policy professor at the University of Alberta and a self-professed "science and evidence geek," to discuss why celebrities hold such sway in the world of health. (We tried to catch up with Paltrow, too, but she did not respond to requests for comment.)
What are the worst -- or as you would say, the 'most bunkified' -- products or ideas that Gwyneth Paltrow endorses?
Colon cleanse: There is no evidence we need to cleanse our colons or detoxify our bodies. Vagina steaming to detoxify and increase fertility: again, absolutely ridiculous. Getting stung by bees is her latest thing for anti-aging -- because, yes, anaphylaxis is so revitalizing. Goop, her website, suggested wearing a bra can cause cancer. This is raising fears, completely science free. I could go on and on and on.
What's wrong with colon cleanses? How can detoxifying my body be bad for me?
Some of them are quite extreme, and they're not nutritious. They can be harmful because you're not eating properly and not getting proper nutrients -- just water and lemon juice, or something like that. They add to the idea that we need to adopt extreme strategies to have a healthy lifestyle. Most people do it to lose weight, but it's a horrible weight loss strategy and it's destined to fail -- as it did when I tried it.
Since I wrote the book, the importance of the microbiome and gut health have become high-profile. So the cleanses now claim they "restart" your microbiome. There's no evidence for this at all.
So bee stings, snail slime, and bee poop facials won't help me look younger? What will?
Kim Kardashian is always leading the way on this: [She promotes] the "vampire facial," which uses your own blood, and a million kinds of stem cell facial lifts. There's no evidence any of it works. There are very few actions you can take to look younger, but you know what they are: You stay out of the sun, you don't smoke. There is some emerging evidence that exercise, a balanced diet, and sleep improve skin.
Why is a health law professor from Canada obsessed with Gwyneth Paltrow? Did something specific trigger your ire?
I do get asked that a lot. One reporter joked that maybe I was secretly in love with her. That's not the case.
We seem to be in a unique period in cultural history where we have more tolerance for pseudoscience and what I call bunk. This has made room for celebrities to step in. Gwyneth is an icon in the world of fashion and a movie star, but increasingly, her brand is dispensing health advice.
There is a plague of celebrity culture in the area of health and science, and Gwyneth is really the queen of this realm.
What about celebrity physicians like Dr. Mehmet Oz, who touts unproven weight loss pills, and Dr. Deepak Chopra, who suggests that 'quantum healing' and happy thoughts can cure cancer?
They are incredibly aggravating. The quantum thing is hilarious.
When doctors like Oz and Chopra provide such advice, it's more problematic because of their legal and ethical obligations as physicians. They are viewed as being more trustworthy -- that's why you saw the tremendous pushback Oz got [from fellow physicians last year]. Because they're physicians, they're held to a higher standard, and I think they should be.
Katy Perry swears by what she calls the 'vitamin LYFE.' Do you really think people should stop taking vitamins?
Katy Perry endorses these crazy amounts of supplements. I'm 52, I'm reasonably vain, and I take no supplements at all. If you're healthy and have an active lifestyle, you really don't need supplements. Even the data around multivitamins is very iffy. I'm open-minded about omega-3 and vitamin D because there is emerging data showing these may be beneficial and are probably not harmful. But history tells us we should be skeptical.
Research tells us none of us exercise or sleep enough, none of us eat enough fruits and vegetables, and 15 to 20 percent of us smoke. And we're worried about supplements?
Why have the voices of celebrities in the health arena become so loud and powerful?
There's interesting speculation we might be predisposed to emulate people with prestige. In the past maybe it was good hunters, today it's Kardashians. What makes this era different is because of social media and reality TV, celebrities are simply everywhere; they are closer to us. Grace Kelly existed in a different realm, while Kim Kardashian is part of daily life.
The other thing that's going on right now is distrust in traditional sources of scientific information. People think big pharma and industry have corrupted science. The public hears about the problems scientists have not being able to replicate their studies. One day they hear wine is good for you, the next day it's bad. They say, "You scientists can't make up your minds." That's all created a lot of space for celebrities.
Do you have any superstitions or health habits that aren't necessarily grounded in science?
I used to do things like carbo load when I was a road cyclist. No evidence to support that. I used to take high doses of protein. No evidence to support that.
And sometimes science changes. I fell for the drinking-lots-of-water thing and that doesn't seem to be true. I used to promote the idea that you really need to eat breakfast, but the science is starting to evolve on that. I used to not drink alcohol, now I drink a little.
That's the best thing about science: You can change your mind as the evidence changes.