Khloe Kardashian launched her weight loss show, Revenge Body, in 2017. (Pic: supplied)
Khloe Kardashian launched her weight loss show, Revenge Body, in 2017. (Pic: supplied)

Why are we still taking diet advice from celebrities?

LET'S do a little thought experiment: Imagine you are determined to change your eating habits and to eat more healthily.

You plan to eat more fruit and definitely more vegetables. You go to your local book shop to look for books to support you on that journey and you bump into an acquaintance. You start talking. She is overweight and is looking for similar reading material. Diet is a big issue for her, too, but unlike you she has already read numerous books on the subject, attended seminars, tried recipes, and consulted a dietitian - and now she's giving you her unsolicited advice. How do you react? You're unlikely to be euphoric. No, judging by your acquaintance's waist, she's the last person you'd ask for competent diet advice. Well, you might be wrong. But where are you getting diet advice from?

Back home on your sofa, you're flipping through the pages of a lifestyle magazine and find the former supermodel Elle Macpherson looking up at you. Today, Elle Macpherson is engaged in the antiageing market. She is fifty-three, but could easily pass for forty-three. Her body? Amazing. Her message? Simple: Feel good, feed your cells, and you'll look great.

Her own personal 'superfood' is neither goji berries nor chia seeds but an alkalising food supplement that she developed: 'The Super Elixir'. It's a green miracle powder that is said to promote vitality and wellbeing, as well as reduce stress, tiredness, and premature ageing of the skin. Price: $135 per box. You seriously consider ordering the powder.

A single container of Elle McPherson’s elixir retails for a cool $135 a pop. (Pic: Joel Ryan)
A single container of Elle McPherson’s elixir retails for a cool $135 a pop. (Pic: Joel Ryan)

Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow also likes to present herself as a nutrition guru and posts tips on her website Goop that are not unlike the ones you see in women's magazines - the crucial difference is that her celebrity status affords her an authority and a credibility that moves her into the rank of an expert, a position for which she doesn't qualify. Just as you judged your acquaintance in the book shop, we judge celebrities by their success and good looks and assume that they possess intelligence and competence. If only we looked like that! And were as successful! Therefore, there must be some truth in their recommendations. Right?

We've fallen into a trap - the 'halo effect', a well-documented cognitive bias. The shine from a perceived saint's (or celebrity's) halo can make us blind to what's real. We project success in one area onto other areas, concluding that a person has expertise in an area that they do not. Objective evaluation criteria? Who needs them! The effect is particularly strong on those who are impulsive: The more impulsive a person is, the quicker they are to judge, and the greater the chance of falling into the halo effect trap. The halo effect is nothing new; the concept was first introduced nearly a hundred years ago by the American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike. During the First World War, Thorndike researched how command personnel assessed their subordinate soldiers. He asked officers for an assessment of the soldiers' physique, character, leadership qualities, and intellect. Soldiers with an attractive face and ideal posture were consistently rated higher than their less physically endearing colleagues. Since then extensive research into cognitive distortion has been carried out, and such distortion has been demonstrated in many areas of our lives.

Gwyneth Paltrow has become synonymous with her diet and lifestyle blog, GOOP. (Pic: Chris Delmas)
Gwyneth Paltrow has become synonymous with her diet and lifestyle blog, GOOP. (Pic: Chris Delmas)

The influence celebrities can exert on our eating habits is augmented by another trend: namely, that food today is no longer just nourishment but has become a lifestyle statement. One of the magic words customers fall for hook, line, and sinker, and one that Paltrow & co. repeat over and over, is detox. We are urged time and again to cleanse our apparently permanently clogged insides. Everywhere we turn there is talk of how we need to cleanse the body. Humans are sinners: We eat sugar and wheat, drink coffee and alcohol, and binge on burgers and fries. Our miserable habits acidify our bodies - especially on weekends and holidays. Detox is the penance. But the truth is: A healthy body doesn't need to detox! It

has a near-perfect, organic cleansing system that conveniently works day and night. Should the body actually be poisoned, a green smoothie is unlikely to help.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: So, truthfully, whose advice are you more likely to take: that of your well-read acquaintance or that of your favourite health-centric celebrity? What other advice are we encouraged to take from unqualified sources who enjoy the illusion of authority? When confronted by one of those relentless marketing campaigns launched for nutrition products with a celebrity at the helm, ask yourself if that celebrity's image engenders trust - and authority. Are you being sold a product or a lifestyle? The next time someone gives you some well-meaning advice, don't be too quick to judge. Sit back and verify the competence of the adviser before you take - or leave - it.

This is an extract from How We Eat With Our Eyes And Think With Our Stomachs by Melanie Mühl and Diana Von Kopp, published via Scribe.

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