January 13, 2015 by Speakers' Spotlight
Timothy Caulfield Debunks Celebrity Health Trends, from Gluten-Free Diets to Colon Cleanses
Over the past few decades, celebrity culture’s grip on our society has tightened. For Timothy Caulfield, a celebrated author and health science expert who is a University of Alberta professor and a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy, this culture has a measurable influence on individual life choices and health-care decisions. While acknowledging the pervasiveness of celebrity culture, Tim doesn’t mock those who enjoy it (in fact he loves celebrity culture), but with a skeptic’s eye and a scientific lens, he identifies and debunks the messages and promises that flow from the celebrity realm, whether they are about health, diet, beauty, or what is supposed to make us happy. His fun, new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? hits stores today:
In the 1980s, Timothy Caulfield could’ve easily derailed his studies at the University of Alberta. He was far too busy trying to be a rock star.
First was his band The Citizens, who sounded like The Clash and once opened for The Ramones in 1983. Then came Absolute 9, a New Wave act with an album release on MuchMusic, back when Erica Ehm was a VJ instead of a mommy blogger.
“I had the Flock of Seagulls hair, the tight leather,” says Caulfield, now a 51-year-old father of four with a far more practical haircut.
Anyone familiar with Caulfield’s recent work — he’s a professor, lawyer, writer and health policy expert — knows he didn’t end up topping the charts. Instead, he’s back at his alma mater, as research director of the university’s Health Law and Science Policy Group, and the author of The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness.
Caulfield may have traded in rock and roll for health policy but he’s still a self-described “celebrity junkie.”
“In my work on health policy, science policy and public health, I started to notice the increasing impact celebrity culture has on our discussions on health and beauty,” he says, chatting with the Star from his standing desk in Edmonton. (Caulfield was originally skeptical of standing desks but says he’s all in now. “The data is starting to show we do sit too much,” he explains.)
In his latest book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything, whichhits shelves on Jan. 13, Caulfield debunks the health myths perpetuated by the famous and fabulous, from colon cleanses to gluten-free diets.
“The juice cleanse is a really good example. It’s really been perpetuated by celebrity culture,” he says.
Throughout the book, he reveals how these celeb-endorsed health tweaks aren’t backed up by scientific evidence.
So why do so many people buy into these trends? And does Gwyneth really believe this stuff?
Caulfield decided to find out with a deep dive into the world of gluten-free diet devotee Miley Cyrus and cosmetic acupuncture aficionado Kim Kardashian.
After spending a lifetime using cheap soap and disposable razors, Caulfield hit up a celebrity spa and adopted a new skin care regimen featuring various face scrubs and ointments. He went to several dermatologists to see if there was a difference in his skin.
“You can imagine what the results were,” he says.
He also tried out for American Idol in San Francisco — finding himself at one point beside the perfectly coiffed Ryan Seacrest — and went on Gwyneth’s preferred cleanse for a gruelling three weeks filled with unpalatable shake powders and a boatload of probiotics.
“There’s no coffee!” he exclaims over the phone. “And that alone almost killed me.”
He didn’t die, of course, but he did lose weight. Three weeks later he’d gained it all back.
While euphoria and long-term weight loss weren’t side-effects of Caulfield’s time on the cleanse, hunger was. In the book, he offers a quick fix of his own: the Caulfield Cleanse. Step one as follows: “Cleanse your system of all the pseudo-science babble that flows from many celebrities, celebrity physicians and the diet industry.”
To Caulfield, a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be so complicated — or confusing. He tries to work out five to six days a week, commutes around Edmonton on his bike, makes his own lunch and eats the same thing for breakfast every day: muesli and plain yogurt with blueberries and blackberries, if they’re available.
“It’s boring and it’s straightforward and stuff that we’ve known our whole lives,” Caulfield says.
Just eat a healthy diet, exercise, don’t smoke, drink in moderation and get enough sleep. “It’s really, really basic stuff.”
An advocate of evidence-based health care, Caulfield doesn’t mince words when he’s talking about trendy alternatives like homeopathy and energy fields.
Detoxing, he says, is a ridiculous fad. “There’s no sort of scientific ambiguity about it. It’s just bogus.”
But he’s careful to separate his distaste for celebrity health fads from his respect for the entertainers behind them. He is, after all, a rock star at heart.
“Poor Gwyneth has had a tough year … I’m not trying to pile on her. I think she’s terrific,” Caulfield says.
She also seems intelligent, he adds. “So I’m fascinated why she would believe so much of this pseudo-scientific garbage.”
Celebs are wrong about …
Caulfield says celebrities as diverse as Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Britney Spears have “embraced the fecal flush.” But a 2011 review of relevant scientific literature poo-pooed the practice, noting there are no scientifically robust studies in support of it. The bottom line: colon cleanses can do harm and no good — potentially leading to nausea, vomiting and infection. “The idea that a colon cleanse removes toxins and promotes health is so ridiculous that it is a pretty good test for quacks,” Caulfield writes.
Juicing is popular both with Hollywood celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow and regular folk here in Toronto. But Caulfield says there’s no evidence supporting the notion that juicing is a better way to eat fruits and vegetables, lose weight or remove toxins from our bodies. It’s not inherently dangerous but nor is it a magical quick-fix. Why not just eat an apple?
It seems everyone is going gluten-free these days but there are no studies to back up the claimed benefits. Despite anecdotes about Miley Cyrus getting a flat tummy by ditching bread, Caulfield says no credible study has shown that gluten/wheat are behind the current obesity epidemic. In fact, some studies have shown going gluten-free can actually lead to weight gain. There’s also no evidence backing up a gluten-free diet as a smart lifestyle choice — unless, of course, you have specific dietary needs stemming from a medical issue like celiac disease.