Netflix Documentary Series ‘”(Un)Well”‘ Looks at Health Trends, Fads

essential oils, other trends go under skeptics' microscopes in new docuseries

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new Netflix docuseries is exposing the facts and fictions of wellness fads, The Guardian reported. (Un)well takes aim at six health trends, from essential oils to bee sting therapy, to analyze their pros and cons. Here are a couple that they didn’t cover.

Acai fruit and powder
A popular health food trend gave focus to the açaí berry as a “superfood.” Photo By Alexander Ruiz Acevedo / Shutterstock

According to The Guardian, Netflix is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to its original documentary productions—and its latest involves some mythbusting. “The gauzy, overused umbrella of wellness now encompasses a vast universe of practices, products, and refashioned belief systems, with varying risks and scientific grounding, which have surged in popularity over the last decade on social media and internet forums,” the article said.

“(Un)well, a six-part Netflix docuseries, delves into this murk of wellness—sometimes promising, sometimes scammy, sometimes dangerous—to examine this expansive, lucrative web of wellness and the confusing sludge of information online.”

According to the article, the series covers “essential oils, tantric sex, consumption of human breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee-sting therapy.” Some health fads not covered by the series are so-called “superfoods” and “clean eating.” Here’s what they mean.

Açaí What’s Going on Here…

Health food trends are a dime a dozen. From fad diets to various “cleanses,” it’s easy to find someone promising a solution to health problems. One is the “superfood” craze that began about 30 years ago.

“‘Superfood’ has no medical meaning, and physicians, dieticians, and nutrition scientists do not use that term,” said Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. “It is a marketing word that’s been applied to many foods that are supposed to have special health-giving properties. It really took off around 1990, when it was popularized in several books and articles featuring lists of these so-called ‘superfoods.'”

Dr. Benaroch cited blueberries, kale, ginger, turmeric, seaweed, and chickpeas as examples of this trend, often leading to huge spikes in their sales. Perhaps the most recent superfood is açaí, a South American berry-like fruit that made its way to the United States around 2000.

“At one point, açaí was one of the fastest-growing foods in history, billed as a cure for, among other things, ADD; autism; arthritis; Alzheimer’s disease; erectile dysfunction; and, of course, obesity,” Dr. Benaroch said. Soon, he added, celebrity doctors and daytime talk show hosts caught on and sales swelled from a half a million dollars a year to $106 million.

Eventually, studies showed no major benefits of eating açaí and certainly not as a cure for disease. However, customers and some media outlets still buy into it as a “superfood.”

Is There Such a Thing as “Dirty Eating?”

Another food trend with a dizzying history is the fad of “clean eating.” Dr. Benaroch said it first popped up in 2007 in a book written by a Canadian fitness model named Tosca Reno. In her book, Reno offered similar advice to earlier healthy diets—home-cooked meals, plenty of vegetables, and small portions—but she espoused “clean eating” as not just a diet, but a way of life.

“Clean eating in this first iteration included a lot of common sense, healthful advice that caught on quickly,” he said. He quoted an article from the magazine Healthy Women that noted clean eaters don’t beat themselves up when they have a “cheat day” as long as they stick to eating “pure, unadulterated ingredients.”

“This original emphasis was on eating more of these healthful foods, rather than a diet of exclusion, but there’s a little germ there, hinting at what was to come,” Dr. Benaroch said. “What exactly are ‘pure, unadulterated ingredients?’ Those look like simple words, but their meaning was never clear. That opened the door to a big change in the meaning of what, exactly, clean eating was all about.”

Another book followed, recommending that dieters avoid everything from wheat, soy, and peanuts to tomatoes and peppers. The craze of “clean eating” soon took over social media. However, it was most often promoted by young internet stars boasting of how their lives had been changed by “eating and living clean.” Eventually, the rigid and even fascistic limitations that clean eating proponents propagated caused enough problems that it, ironically, became a known medical issue.

“A new, though not-yet-formalized, medical diagnosis has been proposed to refer to a new kind of eating disorder inspired by the kind of super-restrictive and moralistic diet to which some clean eaters aspire,” Dr. Benaroch said. “It’s called ‘orthorexia,’ meaning an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy, and it’s become one of the most common reasons for referral to eating disorder specialists.”

Health is big business, and many bad actors are profiting from fad diets and unproven trends. Common sense and consulting a reputable health expert can go a long way in preventing yourself or a loved one from being fooled.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his BS in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his MD at Emory University.